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Drunk on Data

This post will take you about 3 minutes to read.

You can make numbers say whatever you want.

In 2010, I kept score of almost 100 baseball games. As a sports information director at UNC and a press officer for USA Baseball, I saw my fair share of statistics. It’s here I learned an important lesson.

“Statistics are like a bikini. They show a lot, but still cover up some very vital information.”

You can measure nearly anything in baseball. Batting average, runs batted in, saves, earned run average, on-base percentage, and more. All for a game as simple as - 1, 2, 3 strikes you’re out.

It was a humid April night in Clemson, SC. The Friday night matchup pitted both team’s best pitcher against each other. Prior to the game, the opposing radio crew wanted to get my perspective on the UNC starter.

The crew stared at the stats. 4-2 record. Solid strikeout-to-walk ratio. But then they got lost in the numbers.

0-2 in his last 3 starts against ranked teams? One crew member quipped, “he struggles against good competition. And our offense is even better than the ranked teams he’s faced.” Clemson, ranked in the top 25 at the time, featured a player that led the league in home runs.

I could of pulled out more numbers and tried to state my case. A win-loss record of a pitcher is about as meaningful as your fifth grade report card. But all I said was the numbers are misleading in those 3 games.

The crew chuckled and dismissed my comment, hypnotized by the numbers.

Fast-forward a few years later. I work for an analytics company. We help online businesses measure all aspects of their commerce. I interact with businesses owners and entrepreneurs who rely on these numbers everyday.

Last month, I found myself in an interesting conversation. I began to ask a customer to compare the metrics and data available today to when he first started in e-commerce 15 years ago. I couldn’t even finish my sentence, before he cut me off.

“There is so much of it out there today, I feel like I have data coming out of my ears. Data is important, but it can be too much of a good thing.”

He went on to explain how we’ve all fallen in love with data. We measure stuff because we can, not because we should. The numbers drive too many of our decisions.

We’re data drunks.

Back to that muggy April night. The UNC pitcher single-handedly led his team to victory. And 3 years later, Matt Harvey was the starting pitcher in the MLB All-Star game.

You could rave about how he shoved a complete-game or struck out 15 batters that night. But as the radio crew that only believed the stats a few hours earlier admitted …

“Numbers won’t tell you the whole story.”

Because numbers can’t talk.

Find me on Twitter @thischrisgallo or GitHub @gallochris or Instagram @heygallo.