Home politics In a data-obsessed world, the power of observation must not be forgotten | Adrian Chiles

In a data-obsessed world, the power of observation must not be forgotten | Adrian Chiles

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Around this time of year, many years ago, I moderated a conference. I believe it was to do with marketing. A succession of people stood up and told us about clever things they had done. Some said things that made me turn the corners of my mouth down and nod in appreciation of their creativity. Then again, I was on stage next to them, so I suppose I was being paid to look impressed. An airline chap told us how they had come up with a radical new design for their business-class cabins. Hmm, they had asked themselves, who specialises in the optimum use of small spaces? Aha, exclaimed somebody, how about yacht designers? And bingo, something wonderful was born.

Then he made a related point, which has stuck in my mind. He asked us to put our hands up if we had been in a relationship for more than two years. Most hands went up. He told us to consider our partners and acknowledge that, after two years or more, we were privy to an awful lot of information about them. We knew what they liked and disliked, what got on their nerves and what didn’t, what they enjoyed eating, or not, and all their ambitions, hopes and fears, as well as their shoe size and other vital statistics.

“And now,” he went on, “can I ask you to leave your hands up if you have the faintest idea what to buy your partner for Christmas?” Every hand went down, as we murmured in appreciation of the point he was making: that all the data in the world is no use to you if don’t know what to do with it.

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I was talking to Arsène Wenger about this in relation to statistical analysis of footballers’ and team performances. In his 22 years as Arsenal’s manager he rode the wave of this kind of data. When he took over in 1996, he was more interested in it than most managers were. By the time he left in 2018 I get the feeling he thought the focus on the numbers, graphs, read-outs and whatnot had got out of hand – that there was more of it than was useful.

Either way, we agreed there is an analogy with satnav systems in cars. Having worked as a driver for a year in the last century before such devices were invented, I had always been rather good at finding my way around. Now, having become reliant on satnavs, I fear that without one I’m no longer sure which way is up, let alone left or right. All the data appears to be robbing me of my ability to think.

I’m not the only one. In 2017, after a nasty bump between a US warship and an oil tanker, Aron Soerensen, head of maritime technology and regulation at the Baltic and International Maritime Council, said: “Maybe today there’s a bit of a fixation on instruments instead of looking out the window.” There’s a lot of this about, literally and metaphorically.

Obviously, there are limits to the value of personal observation. Just because I see many people flouting Covid rules or drinking to excess or whatever, doesn’t mean everyone is doing it. As a think tanker friend wearily admonishes me: “Anecdote isn’t data, Adrian.” No, it isn’t, but if all you do is look at statistics to reach conclusions, decide on policies and develop your algorithms, without ever finding time to look out the window, seriously suboptimal outcomes – as the data geeks might put it – will come to pass.

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This might be happening with Covid-19; it certainly seems to have happened with political polling. I find myself paralysed with uncertainty on all things: I don’t feel I can really trust what I see, hear and feel for myself on more or less any subject. Yet neither do I entirely trust the data. In search of guidance on this matter, I just pressed the voice button on my car’s satnav and asked how I could sort this out in my mind. No joy. Question not recognised. I drive uncertainly on.

Adrian Chiles is a Guardian columnist



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