Rise of evidence in human decision making

Technology should be embraced when it leads to better decision making. Human experts should not be followed blindly.

“The door is closed. The decision was not to use technology at all,” FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke stated in March 2010, as the governing organization of football rejected the use of technology as a support to the referee. Valcke summed up the FIFA’s view by stating: “Let’s keep the game of football as it is.”

Patrick Nelson, chief executive of the Irish FA, stated that, “We very much appreciate the human side of the game, the debate, the controversy.” Nelson seemed to be implying that one of the reasons people liked football was because of the mistakes.

In the year 2010, the above sounds astonishing. It sounds like a comedy sketch. In this comedy sketch you see football officials riding into work on horseback and grabbing a carrier pigeon when they want to send a message.

Pity the poor referees. Those watching TV can see the instant replays that prove beyond a doubt whether the referee has made the right or wrong decision. As the referee’s mistakes are exposed to practically everyone except the referee himself, the integrity of the game is undermined.

It’s not just football officials who live delusional lives. Many ‘creatives’ in the advertising industry greatly resent technology.

“Just as video killed the radio star, metrics are killing creativity,” Patrick Sarkissian writes for AdvertisingAge in March 2010. (Did video actually kill the radio star?) Sarkissan writes about his clients as a teacher talks about an errant pupil. He is a ‘creative’, you see, the rest of us are, by definition, uncreative.

“Recently, I had a wicked battle with a client determined to let the numbers fully dictate a new creative strategy,” Sarkissan writes. “Thing is, you cannot truly quantify creativity.” He then uses metrics to prove his point. He quotes a particular campaign approach that received a 19.5 percent positive response from customers, and then another approach to the same campaign that received an 80 percent positive response. How ironic.

Sarkissian finishes his article by reminding us that “great ideas don’t come from numbers.” I believe it was Charles Babbage (the inventor of the first computer) who once asked: “Did the human make the tool or did the tool make the human?” Good technology extends us, gives us more capabilities. Where would our beloved creatives be without their Apple computers?

We need to resist those who talk about the human as some creative all-knowing entity. We need to embrace technology if it will lead to better decisions. Metrics are not sacrosanct either. But to say that creative ideas never come out of numbers is naïve.

The relentless march of technology-generated evidence is everywhere, from teaching, to medicine, to website management. And what are we learning? That doctors and web managers make much better decisions when they have evidence, data; facts, not opinions. We need to embrace technology and allow it to extend our capabilities. If we resist, and believe in the infallibility of humans, we don’t undermine technology—we undermine ourselves.


17 responses

  1. Evidentiary , My Dear Watson
    Nice one Gerry. I can’t feel but comment. Especially the Babbage quote. I prefer the Turing test( inventor of A.I.) whose test is if the human can tell the difference between a computer and a machine ( the evidence engine). That line is blurred today as machines are behind all our interactions with the world we know. Air-flight, Call Centres, Customer service. They replace humans in so many aspects of our life, letting humans do what they do best…human interactions…face to face stuff, thats where humans excel and computer systems fail. HAL in 2001: A space Odyssey didn’t like what he heard the humans say about him, and went into meltdown. Based on the evidence to date we haven’t moved much from Stanley Kubrick’s epic vision and Alan Turing’s “difference test”

  2. Sorry Gerry. Error in Turing test. Should read :difference
    between a HUMAN and a machine

  3. A friend worked as a in an advertising/marketing agency. One day the director asked her not to wear jeans in the office in future.
    She said “what about Jon and Susan, they wear jeans all the time!”

    Director: “Yes, but they’re creatives”.

  4. That quote from the Irish FA chap is astounding. Wasn’t it Ireland who were denied a World Cup place because of a French handball which the TV cameras saw but the referee missed?

    To blindly deny technology is as daft as to blindly embrace it. There is good (or appropriate) technology and bad (or inappropriate) technology. Choosing and using the right technology has always given people or organisations or countries an advantage over their competitors/enemies. In business, in war, in sport.

    Sometimes technology shows that what ‘everyone knows’ is in fact wrong and at that point, provided the technology has been shown to be reliable, it’s time to make changes. To not do so is dogma.

  5. Mike, yes it was Ireland who was knocked out because of the illegal hand ball. It beggars belief, unless you are familiar with the Irish FA, and then nothing at all would ever surpise you.

  6. Entertaining and thought provoking article as usual - thanks.

    Need to comment on the whole football thing though. A lot of people (myself included) like talking about football with friends almost as much as watching. So a bit of controversy goes a long way.

    I think maybe you’be been clouded by the whole Henry handball thing. (And I don’t blame you. It was appalling. And much talked about.)

    Technology isn’t needed as much as proper punishment for those who get caught cheating (whenever they’re found out). Others perhaps wouldn’t feel so inclined to take a risk and cheat if Henry was banned from the forthcoming tournament.

    I’ve read your column for years, and it’s taken something about football to prompt me to comment. That’s really bad…

  7. The Luddites will always be with us, Gerry, taking everything they have for granted and resisting anything new. Technology has rarely ‘killed’ creative people (with the exception of the squeaky-voiced heroines of the silent films), as witness the transition from radio to TV of such people as William Conrad, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Eve Arden, Richard Crenna, Jeff Chandler, Arthur Godfrey, Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.

  8. Neil, Glad you’re enjoying the stuff. I understand the element of controversary–it is a good point. I do think though that when the video clearly shows the ref made a mistake that does undermine the overall credibility of the system. Before it was just back and forth, but now there is evidence; evidence that, strangely, the ref doesn’t have.

  9. “Metrics are not sacrosanct either. But to say that creative ideas never come out of numbers is naïve.”

    I agree we need balance. I just wrote a post myself last week about balancing the extreme opposite from the one you describe–when we try to let data think FOR us and undervalue human judgment. (See The Myth of Data Driven Decisions.)

    Experts–and some creatives are experts, I’d say–should be trusted to make decisions. There’s a lot of evidence (see Outliers and How We Decide) showing experts get very good at making decisions, and they don’t need data for every little decision. But that should never be an excuse for ignoring data.

  10. Colleen, I actually had read your blow post (someone had referenced to to me after reading mine), and I thought it was excellent. It is that terrible old thing called balance, and knowing when and how to use the data.

  11. I Don’t watch Tennis: Anymore
    Yes technology is an enabler. Look what it did for tennis. Hawkeye doesn’t allow for mistakes. Raccquet technolgy has led to lighter, larger, more powerful, graphite tennis racquets. Sounds great , but it has destroyed the game. modern tennis is boring in the extreme ! All serve and volley. No more colouful McEnroe like tantrums off the ball interacting with the umpire and the audience and the TV viewer when his ball clipped a line or shot up some dust on the tramlines. Controversial stuff. All gone with the introduction of technology. No more tennis anymore:
    I dont want TV refs. Worse than TV dinners. Dont’ want sport to descend to timeshift SKY instantaneous rewinds, slowmotion, pause and replay. Please stop. It’s killing me. I can do all that on my Xbox. Too much interference, and stoppages ruin it for me. Tinkering with “the Game”. Leave sport alone, leave out the BLING stuff, thats all it is..

  12. Yes - we should never stop extending our capabilities by using technology. This is one of the key concepts argued by http://www.thezeitgeistmovement.com which argues that we should live within the resources of the planet (as we obviously have to) and use technology to get the very best for ourselves, sustainably.

  13. “Experts get very good at making decisions”. Slightly circular argument - being good at making decisions is (in part) what makes someone an expert, surely. “They don’t need data for every little decision”. Well they don’t need to go back and look at the data each time they make a decision, any more than I need to look up how to brush my teeth every time I do it, but all decisions are based on the scientific method of testing and experimenting. If all the results of all scientific testing were accumulated in one database, computers could make decisions, because they could see what worked before. That’s all your GP is doing when they prescribe medicine - making decision based on accumulated information.

  14. Mick Dolan somewhat misses the point (apart from his observation that tennis is boring!).

    In most sporting situations - tennis, football, whatever - there is no electronic aid for the referee nor does there need to be. But when you have major events, widely televised, it is perverse in the extreme to have the technology which could settle disputes available to millions of people across the globe - but not the one individual who could actually use it.

    As Gerry says right at the top, “Technology should be embraced when it leads to better decision making.” The decision of you, me and everyone at home is irrelevant. Only the decision of the referee/umpire in situ matters, so why is that the one person denied access to the technology?

    I can’t believe that people watch televised sports to see players argue with referees. People watch for the thrill of seeing top-class athletes demonstrating their skill, and part of that skill is being able to go to the absolute edge. You or I would try and get the ball squarely where it should be but a world class player can get it right on the edge of a line, a division finer than the human eye can judge, certainly at speed. Surely technology which allows them to benefit from that skill enhances the experience for all concerned.

    Denying that is a bit like preferring to listen to music off vinyl because the needle sometimes skips around.

  15. Analogue v Digital referees:
    Re: Mike Simpson’s comment. Gerry and yourself are correct…correct in that that it would bring decision making to the ref…amidst incontrovertible evidence.

    Gerry also argues the case for evidence based campaigns , illustrating that taking a different approach affects the percentage success or failure of that campaign. I believe, evidence will show that viewership of soccer will decline if TV refereeing is introduced, if sport is handed over to the digital medium. What’s there to watch anymore,if everything is incontrovertibly decided for us?

    And yes i’d prefer vinyl to digital sound. There is an anti-digital movement in the music industry that is gaining ground. Digital sound is flat and anonymous and not as harmonic as valve or vinyl stylus players. The expert human ear can tell the difference between a digital note and an analogue one. That’s a fact. I prefer analogue refs to digital refs anytime.

  16. Mick, I don’t quite agree with yu but I do see your point. Why not have it like in Rugby where it is only used in rared circumstances? It hasn’t ruined Rugby or driven crowds away.

    I like vinyl as well but don’t use it’s much easier it’s just so much easier to use an iPod. And if I have a really good pair of speakers then digital is too bad.

  17. Gerry, Why eat dog’s meat when you can eat Caviar? If video killed the radio star, compressed audio has killed our aural experience. The gaps in MP3 compression are not gaps in viny. The real audio lives in those missing elements.
    The blend. Modern technology either adds or substracts from our experiences. Sport is defined as “physical activity that is governed by a set of rules or customs and often engaged in competitively” .. It does’nt mention video refs, or timeshift recordind. We add that on. Like salt in our food to flavour the experience. Some might say video referees add value to a game, i disagree, it detracts or subtracts value

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