Tom Webster, writing and speaking

Information Vs. Evidence

Added on by Tom Webster.

At this year's Social Fresh conference in Charlotte, I had an intriguing conversation with Amber Naslund about the tonnage of data we see tweeted, retweeted and "liked" on our various social media platforms. Learning to discern the sketchy from the credible was the topic of a post I recently contributed to Social Fresh, so I won't recapitulate that here, but spotting good data is really just the first level of truly gaining insight from consumer studies. The trick to capitalizing upon data is to spot patterns in that data that unlock the keys to understanding user/consumer behavior and (more importantly) to extrapolate those trend lines into the future to understand the next, new thing in time to be proactive, and not reactive. This is not as easy as some would have you believe. By far, the most common problem I encounter in our custom research practice is with stakeholders who, consciously or subconsciously, already have a pattern in their brain, e.g., "Location-Based Apps Are The Future!" When you already think you know something, you'll have a devil of a time "unknowing" it. This causes your reticular activating system (RAS) to kick in, which in turn colors the way you process the informational inputs you receive every day. Your RAS is a part of your brain that, among other things, filters what you see into what you notice. In other words, it's the reason why after you buy a new car/shirt/dress/bag, you suddenly "see" these objects more frequently in the wild. They were always there; it's merely that your RAS has filtered your perspective in such a way that now you can't help but notice them. It's also that part of your brain that magical thinking devotees believe you can use to "manifest your desires," which is a "secret" I'm not sure I possess :)

The pull of the RAS is strong, and it also influences how you think about information. To go back to my original example, if your mindset is that "Location-Based Services Are The Future," then your brain will attempt to fit data into the subsconscious model you've created. This means that if one data point out of ten reports a positive finding about location apps, your brain will naturally gravitate towards that finding as "evidence" that supports your pattern. This can have the effect of not only disregarding the other nine confounding data points, but also disregarding that there are nine confounding data points.

You might say that you are immune to this particular phenomenon, but no one is, really. The best you can do is to continually reinforce your thinking to see data as "information," and not as "evidence." If you are looking for evidence that supports your pre-existing conclusion (whether explicit or implicit), I can guarantee that you'll find it. The trick is knowing what you overlooked to get there. When you can see data as information, you've made a very subtle shift in your thinking (which my friend David Thomas correctly nailed me on as a very Buddhist way of thought, and I suppose it is). The subtle shift is between accepting data ("information") and judging that data ("evidence".) The longer you can put off judging your data, the more receptive you will be to new information - and the more likely you will be to discern the real, emergent and organic patterns in that data to profitable ends.

In my Twitter profile, I note that I'm a pyrrhonist, and I get a lot of questions about what this actually means. Pyrrhonism is a school of skepticism - not cynicism, or "skeptical-ism" - that basically maintains, "nothing can be known, not even this." In its idealized form, the follower of pyrrhonism never makes a judgement about a given fact, because in the instance that this judgement is made, the "judger" is closed off to futher inquiry. As a practical matter, one who truly could suspend judgement ad infinitum would be essentially unemployable (I very nearly am.) The spirit of pyrrhonism, however, is a noble ideal, and I find that the longer I can postpone seeing data as "evidence," and the longer I can see it as information, the more open I am to other data that might alter, confound or negate a pre-existing model of thought - and get me ever-closer to the elusive truth.

That, my friends, is the key to not just retweeting data, but seeing where data leads, and using it to your advantage. It is often the data points that confound your preconceived models that lead to immediate opportunities - in other words, buried in the confounding data that might suggest "Location-Based Services Are NOT The Future," lie the opportunities and action steps you can take today to profitably guide your business to a future where either scenario is possible.

By the way, this doesn't only apply to "data." If you've ever been afraid to poke into some area of your life because you fear what might happen (even if you think it probably will happen), then your model has pre-judged the "data" of your life before it has even emerged. Poke away - you'll get information, no matter what. You can work with information.

There, I just saved you all those therapy bills. Discuss!