Members in the Media
From: The New Yorker

What Data Can’t Do

Tony Blair was usually relaxed and charismatic in front of a crowd. But an encounter with a woman in the audience of a London television studio in April, 2005, left him visibly flustered. Blair, eight years into his tenure as Britain’s Prime Minister, had been on a mission to improve the National Health Service. The N.H.S. is a much loved, much mocked, and much neglected British institution, with all kinds of quirks and inefficiencies. At the time, it was notoriously difficult to get a doctor’s appointment within a reasonable period; ailing people were often told they’d have to wait weeks for the next available opening. Blair’s government, bustling with bright technocrats, decided to address this issue by setting a target: doctors would be given a financial incentive to see patients within forty-eight hours.

It seemed like a sensible plan. But audience members knew of a problem that Blair and his government did not. Live on national television, Diana Church calmly explained to the Prime Minister that her son’s doctor had asked to see him in a week’s time, and yet the clinic had refused to take any appointments more than forty-eight hours in advance. Otherwise, physicians would lose out on bonuses. If Church wanted her son to see the doctor in a week, she would have to wait until the day before, then call at 8 a.m. and stick it out on hold. Before the incentives had been established, doctors couldn’t give appointments soon enough; afterward, they wouldn’t give appointments late enough.

“Is this news to you?” the presenter asked.

“That is news to me,” Blair replied.

“Anybody else had this experience?” the presenter asked, turning to the audience.

Chaos descended. People started shouting, Blair started stammering, and a nation watched its leader come undone over a classic case of counting gone wrong.

Blair and his advisers are far from the first people to fall afoul of their own well-intentioned targets. Whenever you try to force the real world to do something that can be counted, unintended consequences abound. That’s the subject of two new books about data and statistics: “Counting: How We Use Numbers to Decide What Matters” (Liveright), by Deborah Stone, which warns of the risks of relying too heavily on numbers, and “The Data Detective” (Riverhead), by Tim Harford, which shows ways of avoiding the pitfalls of a world driven by data.

Both books come at a time when the phenomenal power of data has never been more evident. The covid-19 pandemic demonstrated just how vulnerable the world can be when you don’t have good statistics, and the Presidential election filled our newspapers with polls and projections, all meant to slake our thirst for insight. In a year of uncertainty, numbers have even come to serve as a source of comfort. Seduced by their seeming precision and objectivity, we can feel betrayed when the numbers fail to capture the unruliness of reality.

Harford quotes the great psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who, in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow,” explained that, when faced with a difficult question, we have a habit of swapping it for an easy one, often without noticing that we’ve done so. There are echoes of this in the questions that society aims to answer using data, with a well-known example concerning schools. We might be interested in whether our children are getting a good education, but it’s very hard to pin down exactly what we mean by “good.” Instead, we tend to ask a related and easier question: How well do students perform when examined on some corpus of fact? And so we get the much lamented “teach to the test” syndrome. For that matter, think about our use of G.D.P. to indicate a country’s economic well-being. By that metric, a schoolteacher could contribute more to a nation’s economic success by assaulting a student and being sent to a high-security prison than by educating the student, owing to all the labor that the teacher’s incarceration would create.

Read the whole story: The New Yorker

More of our Members in the Media >


APS regularly opens certain online articles for discussion on our website. Effective February 2021, you must be a logged-in APS member to post comments. By posting a comment, you agree to our Community Guidelines and the display of your profile information, including your name and affiliation. Comments will be moderated. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations present in article comments are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of APS or the article’s author. For more information, please see our Community Guidelines.

Please login with your APS account to comment.