Friday, May 20, 2011

Evidence Based Decisions? Not Likely!

I wonder what it is that keeps us from using verifiable information at hand to guide our thinking and decisions.  I also wonder what it is that keeps us from even seeking available information in preference to applying our assumptions and prejudices.  For that matter, I wonder if the previous sentences and this one require a period or a question mark?
Our annual clergy conference is ended. It was centered on five sessions with Russ Crabtree of Holy Cow Consulting who demonstrated a variety of simple techniques to develop and analyze congregational profiles.  Some of what we learned is best provided through professional help that small congregations cannot afford.  Just the same, most of them can handle the basics on their own if they are willing.  Will they?  Probably not.  We are far more inclined to forge ahead, or tread water, based on assumptions and prejudices rather than doing the hard work of looking for verifiable evidence.  After all, it might force us to change our minds, and who would want to do that?  
It might be tempting to accuse churches and church leaders of being especially susceptible, but I think it’s a broader human trait.  A couple of years ago I was part of a committee that, with the help of a local university, put together a website offering summaries of hard data on the economic and social health of our valley.  It’s kept up to date and out there in the public domain for anyone to use.  Is it used by public opinion leaders and policy decision makers?  Not as far as I can tell.  Why is that?
I think we can blame part of it on the complexity of our world.  We are overwhelmed by streams of information, some verifiable, some not, assaulting us on every side.  Sorting it all out is impossible.  It’s just easier to go with decisions based on values that are tightly held but seldom examined.  Having said that, history suggests that people at all times and in all places have behaved the same way.  It indicates to me that, even in so called simpler times, the exigencies of daily life appeared too overwhelming or complex to make it easy to make important decisions based on facts rather than assumptions.  
I recall a study done many years ago by the Club of Rome, an organization not well known for its accuracy, that claimed the huge majority of the world’s population did not think in terms any other than of concrete decisions required for day to day living.  It was not only true of people living at subsistence levels, but also of those living in the luxury and ease of economically advanced nations.  Now and then I stumble across other studies that claim the same for some particular population.  If they are true then making decisions based on verifiable evidence is not all that common.  Maybe that is what marketing and advertising people have been counting on all along.  
Can we change that?  I have my doubts.  However, one by one I believe we can begin to exercise more care in the decisions we make.  Is it true? Can I verify it?  On what moral foundations does it rest?  Am I, in the words of the classic Steven Kerr essay, engaging in the “[f]olly of rewarding A while hoping for B.”

1 comment:

Dianna Woolley said...

Verifying information? It's one thing that holds me back in regard to public expression of my political views. I instinctively find it appropriate to place a 2012 Obama on my car's bumper but I've not the patience to painstakingly research all of the reasons I believe that he should be reelected, thereby avoiding the "other" side who comes at me with their "own verifiable" facts in tow to convince me of my naivete. Yet, why do I suspect their decisions are made upon what they value rather than the seemingly statistic laden truths they spill out? It's a universal issue that gets politicians elected as their most recent sound bite is the one that our knees jerk to and our pencil x's upon.