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Data doesn’t make the decisions for you.
That was one of the big takeaways from my conversation with Emily Oster, researcher, author, and mother. As an economist at Brown University, Emily explores the science of making good decisions based on the data. In her newest book, Cribsheet, she explores how to apply that science to the decisions that face us as parents.
What I found most refreshing in our discussion and in her book, was her perspective that it isn’t enough to say you follow the data, or that you are “data-driven”. First of all, the data has to be good. We have to examine it closely to make sure it says what we think it says. And secondly, it has to be combined with what we know about ourselves and about those affected by our decisions.
“Data-driven” has become a popular term in recent years, and while I agree with the sentiment, I bristle against it at times.
We do need to use data to make informed decisions. But I hate to think of data as being in the driver’s seat. Data is more like the guy at the gas station where you stop for directions. He might offer some invaluable, life-saving insight. Or he might be completely off his rocker. It’s a good idea to check in with him, but you definitely need to take what he says and run it through a filter. Does he really understand where you’ve been, where you’re going, and what you’re driving? Is he using an updated map to give you directions? Did he use a lot of LSD in the 60s? These are all pertinent questions.
Similarly, when we use data to inform our decisions, we need to make sure it’s current, clear, and that it’s being applied responsively to the situation at hand.
This responsiveness is a key part of the equation, a part that is too easily overlooked.
Oster emphasizes this aspect in her book, reminding parents that once they have the data, they must look at themselves and their families and then make an informed decision.
She points out, even after analyzing the data rigorously, you may arrive at a different conclusion than another person wrestling with the same decision. In one of my favorite quotes from her book she explains:
Your choices can be right for you but also not necessarily the best choices for other people. Why? You are not other people.”
It’s human nature to want ONE RIGHT ANSWER and to be able to give that to our children. Unfortunately, it’s also human nature to criticize others for choosing something other than our ONE RIGHT ANSWER.
But even with all the data in the world, the science of human development still relies on human relationships and human individuality.
Co-sleeping or no? Well, there’s data on that, but also, how does that work for you?
Which preschool philosophy? There’s data there too, but also, which school seems to fit your child?
Similarly, I’ve known directors who feel pressure from their boards to present a fully prepared curriculum stamped with “research-based” on the side. It’s an understandable request, but the irony is that the best research actually emphasizes the need for responsive early learning environments, not scripted ones.
I know I can’t change the current lexicon (and I realize I’m being picky here) but I prefer to be data-informed over data-driven.
We absolutely need to use data to question the status quo and inform our choices. But relying on data at the expense of the human element excludes some of the most important input we have.
Data alone won’t make good decisions for you. As Emily wrote, “The data is the same for us all, but the decisions are yours alone.”