A Blog by Jonathan Low


Nov 9, 2020

Why Humans Embrace Data To Relieve Uncertainty-Based Anxiety

Pandemics, recessions, elections, wars...and the more prosaic psychological problems presented by compensation, promotion, reorganization, collaboration. 

Anxiety and uncertainty dominate human and organizational behavior, especially during the Covid era with often insoluble problems faced by many as they work remotely, or the many more who, due to economic necessity, have to face the threat of infection daily. Data provide the illusion of control, the notion being that if you can quantify it, you can manage. But it is important to remember that data often reflect the beliefs and biases of their generators - and interpreting data's meaning is even more prone to assumption rather than definition. Data may enlighten and motivate, but it is not human wisdom. JL

Phil Klay comments in the New York Times:

Science is a human method of trying to control chaos, and data is its raw material. Increasingly powerful tools for carving up pieces of the world and putting them under the microscope  (ostensibly provide) deliverance from human predicaments. Because science supposedly gives clear answers about everything from how to open schools in a pandemic to who will be elected president, we embrace it as a panacea. As much as we’d like to believe in “science over fiction,” decisions in the real world require negotiating between what we think the data means and what value to assign to it. Data alone is not knowledge, and it is certainly not wisdom. It rarely says as much as we think it does.

In March, when the first spike of Covid-19 cases in New York was filling hospitals and panicking the city, my immunocompromised mother-in-law and my eight-months pregnant wife both contracted the disease. At first, it was just like a bad cold, but soon my wife was crying in pain every time she coughed and my mother-in-law could barely get out of bed. As my mother-in-law’s oxygen levels ticked down day by day, I would listen to her breathing and wonder whether I should bring her to a hospital.

The idea terrified me. Two friends had parents on ventilators, both of whom would soon die. I didn’t want my mother-in-law away from the family that loved her, to disappear into the black hole of a hospital system where we wouldn’t be able to visit. Every night an old friend, Chris, a trauma surgeon in Philadelphia, would call me to discuss how the disease was progressing and whether it was still safe to have my mother-in-law at home. “In normal times, I’d say she should go to the hospital,” he told me at one point, “and if her oxygen dips any more, she has to.”

At the same time, I had to care for my two children, ages 2 and 4. They seemed OK, not talking much about the virus, excitedly cheering emergency medical workers each night and happily playing throughout the day. But every night they made me tell them the same bedtime story, in Spanish (reinforcing the language felt more important with my Colombian-American wife and mother-in-law terribly ill), about a frog and a butterfly on a quest to find the ingredients for a magic spell to cure “Mama Bruja” and “Abuela Nani Lobo.” They’d go deep into the forest in search of a rainbow-colored fly and the pollen from a rainbow-colored flower, which they would capture with their long, specially designed tongues. And then they’d bring the ingredients back, say the magic words, and dispel the sickness.

Each day, that was the ritual. I’d tell the story, put my children to bed, and then talk to Chris. On one level, bedtime with my children was an escape into the fantasy of storytelling, while Chris was giving me the certainty of scientific expertise most useful for the present moment. But back then there was little scientific certainty around, and so much of what Chris had to offer was something simpler and more human — an old friend carving out time to be with me each day, communicating concern and love and hope for my sick family members. In that way, it wasn’t so different from what was happening as my children and I recited magic words each night.

Stories are a quintessentially human method of responding to the chaos and uncertainty of the world. Science is a quintessentially human method of trying to control that chaos, and data is its raw material. Adrift in the world, uncertain of the future, hostage to fate, but possessed of increasingly powerful tools for carving up pieces of the world and putting them under the microscope, is it any wonder that we increasingly turn to science when looking for deliverance from our human predicaments?

Science, after all, will eventually bring us to the end of the pandemic, just as it has helped limit the damage through better treatments and proof of the benefits of wearing masks. “Science over fiction,” was one slogan of the Joe Biden campaign, a welcome message to those who’d like public policy tethered more to reality than political fantasy.

But because science supposedly gives clear answers about everything from how to open schools in a pandemic to who will be elected president, we tend to rush to embrace it as a panacea. Some, like the popular podcaster and author Sam Harris, even think science can answer moral questions. Rarely does it occur to us how often the invocation of “science” is used to mask value judgments, or political deliberation.

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatricians released separate guidelines for reopening schools, the difference lay not in the underlying science but in their institutional priorities, one focused on disease spread and the other on the welfare of children. Likewise, the difference in how New York City handled the reopenings of day cares and schools reflected not simply science, but also what could be more easily demanded of workers who lacked the protection of a powerful union.

As much as we’d like to believe in “science over fiction,” decisions in the real world require negotiating between what we think the data means, what human value we’d like to assign to it and what stories about it we can get others to accept. Data alone is not knowledge, and it is certainly not wisdom. It rarely says as much as we think it does.

Yet its allure is undeniable, persistent. As I watched the election returns on Tuesday and Wednesday, I did so with the sinking feeling that I’d been fooled again by the lure of data. Even though it looked like Biden could still win, it was clear that those hard numbers I’d been absorbing for weeks, based on fine -tuned methodologies, correcting for past mistakes, aggregated to minimize chances of error, hadn’t come close to reflecting reality. “You are literally working on an essay about the problems with relying too much on data,” my wife told me the morning after the election, “and yet you were so confident in the polls.”

Mona Chalabi, a data journalist at The Guardian, is well aware of its shortcomings. “The biggest problem with data is pure arrogance,” she told me recently. Data can easily be misleading, inaccurate or irrelevant to the question at hand. She recounted how a decade ago, she was at a conference discussing reports she’d helped produce for the International Organization for Migration on the needs of internally displaced people and refugees in Iraq when a fellow attendee told her, “You do know all these numbers are wrong?” Or rather, not wrong, but incomplete. The reports relied on surveys that asked about blankets, food and shelter, but never about things like electricity generators, which were critical and sorely lacking. “It felt like an earthquake to have someone say, ‘Everything you think you know about this group of people is wrong.’”

These days she creates beautiful, sometimes whimsically hand-drawn charts and figures illustrating everything from the pricing of potential coronavirus treatments (with differing prices expressed by the height of pills floating above the pained, open mouths of women representing different countries at the bottom of the graph) to the percentage of interracial marriages in the United States (in which the flowing fabric of a woman’s wedding veil represents different types of interracial marriages over time).

“I illustrate data because I’m deeply skeptical of the data,” she says. “I want to remind people how many human biases go into it.” After all, it’s hard to look at a graph drawn by hand, in a deliberately artistic and emotional manner, and not see the human intentions lying behind it. This focus on the unreliability of our metrics keeps Ms. Chalabi shuttling between the data we have and the voices of those whose experiences don’t line up with the data.

“Anecdotes guide the questions I use to approach data,” she told me before bringing up oft-cited statistics on hate crimes against Muslims after 9/11. “Anecdotally, people are telling me that they experienced hate crimes, but they’re not reporting them,” she said. “So that leads me to ask if there are differences between reporting rates in different communities.” Does the data reveal real levels of discrimination, or distrust of a police force that has engaged in anti-Muslim discrimination itself?

“Data replicates systems of power,” she said, since the types of questions that get asked, and the sort of information deemed worthy of collection, often reflect the biases of the powerful. But people, unruly, free creatures that they are, tend to undermine those systems, for good and ill.

Last December, I traveled to Iraq with the United Nations refugee agency. It was my first time back in the country in over a decade, when I’d deployed as a young, idealistic lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps. Back then, data told a promising story. I was sitting in Anbar Province in September 2007 when Gen. David Petraeus testified to Congress about the progress there — the 45 percent decline in civilian deaths, 55 percent decline in sectarian killings, 445,000 Iraq security force members on the payroll, and so on.

Then I returned home and, over the intervening years, watched all the progress evaporate. Hundreds of thousands killed from war and genocide. Five and a half million displaced. Thousands enslaved and raped. Last December in Sinjar, where the Islamic State waged genocide against the Yazidi population, I saw an exquisite and sad mural of the silhouette of a man under an ISIS flag with the head and wings of a bird, his arms outstretched to the open sky, a chain around his ankle holding him down.

The next day, in the bombed-out center of Mosul, near a mural of a boy lifting up a curtain of rubble to reveal a rainbow of colors, I met a man whose shattered house the United Nations Development Project was restoring. He’d sheltered there with his children in the final days of the battle against ISIS. “We were trapped,” he told me. “We ate cats, rats. For water you had to risk your life to go to the river where the soldiers would shoot at you. We collected rainwater to drink. There were days my children were so hungry, and there was shelling and shooting, and I just wanted to rescue them.” No data could capture what this experience meant, or what I, an American citizen, owed in response.

The projects carried out by the U.N. agencies there tended to focus on meeting immediate, local needs, informed by decades of failed reconstruction efforts, sophisticated, data-rich reports on what types of assistance were most necessary and feedback from their local Iraqi partners. But the largest reconstruction project we saw there, and also the one the local Moslawis with us seemed most proud of, had little to do with such hardheaded pragmatism.

This was the reconstruction, backed by UNESCO and the United Arab Emirates, of the al-Nuri Grand Mosque, the 12th-century mosque and symbol of the city destroyed by ISIS in 2017. As we walked through rubble that was being carefully sorted by construction workers into the original seven bands of stone that made up the old minaret, I made out profane anti-ISIS graffiti on some of the still standing pillars. Amused, I asked a Moslawi man who’d written it. “C.T.S.,” he said sadly, referring to Iraqi special forces. “It would not have been a Moslawi, because we would respect what has been left behind.”

When so many were homeless, living in camps, and when the resources of the humanitarian community were stretched beyond limits by a lack of interest in Iraq and in the suffering of Iraqis, to see a $50 million project focusing on a cultural site might seem strange or unpractical — though only if you think culture and art and man’s search for transcendence aren’t as essential to humanity as more quantifiable needs.

“Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice,” wrote C.S. Lewis on the eve of World War II. “If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun.” And whether we like it or not, that search yields beauty far more regularly than it has ever yielded any kind of scientific mastery over our fates.

We want the comfort of certainty. Millenniums of human art tell us that certainty is not for us, that God only answers Job from the whirlwind, and only answers him with more questions. But millenniums of human art tell us other things as well, things about what we can achieve in terms of beauty, and communion, and transcendence.

When my friend the doctor called to discuss Covid-19 symptoms with me, he didn’t have much in the way of information that I didn’t already know. I had Google, after all. I can read medical studies. And so little was known then that mostly it boiled down to: The disease would either continue to get worse, or it wouldn’t. But a good conversation between two old friends is never simply about the exchange of information. There’s a rhythm to it, an arc, an undercurrent of emotion and history that makes each exchange its own kind of story, a small, impermanent work of art. Here for a few puffs of breath, and then gone.

Now that my wife and mother-in-law are recovered, I think of those moments at the end of my day with deep gratitude. The moments while my children cast magic spells born out of hope and fear, and the moments when my friend spoke to me of the science while I stood at my kitchen sink and softly wept, hearing little more complicated than one friend telling another, “I love you, and I care for you, and I am here for you and those you love.” Each night, after the spells were cast and the conversation was done, I felt more human, and more capable of performing the work ahead of me.


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