"Count what is countable. Measure what is measureable. What is not measureable, make measureable." -- Galileo

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Statistics and Politics

You'll excuse me for yet another political diversion. Yesterday I ran across an old friend at lunch and in the few moments we spoke, he brought up a powerful image that summarized Sarah Palin's political experience. He said that Palin as VP was like the major of Portales, NM (pop. 9,000 like that of Wasilla) getting 18 months as NM governor and then saying he or she was ready for the #2 job in the country.

This sort of imagery isn't a statistical comparison. Its an analogy and they have a way of strongly connecting with our approximate number sense. The New York Times today has a piece about "Gut Instinct" and our two number senses, one approximate and one symbolic, precise, and abstract.

While I'm a big fan of the latter, many people respond more, let us say, viscerally to the former. That's probably why anecdotal evidence is given such heavy weighting in decision making. And that can lead to some bad decisions.

These sort of poor decisions are also made when corporate and institutional criteria out-weigh end-user criteria. All too often institutional decision makers forget to even ask their end-users what their needs and requirements are. The result is a set of tools for the business that meets the IT department's convenience, but ignores the job to be done by the user community.

My best all time example is our company's use of Mass-11 as a corporate word processing standard when Word Perfect was available back in the late 80s. Talk about standardizing on a suboptimal solution.

So the lesson learned is to think end-user requirements and be objective. Find measures for the software and systems decisions you make and don't rely on that easily fooled approximate number sense. Don't hop on the Joomla train because its the next cool thing--have a reason and a measure.

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