David Brooks is skeptical of our growing tendency to quantify everything, but thinks data illuminates in at least two important ways (The New York Times, 2/5/13). The first, he writes, is that it’s “really good at exposing when our intuitive view of reality is really wrong.” This applies to our assumptions that athletes have “hot” or “cold” streaks. It seems researchers have shown “that a player who has made six consecutive foul shots has the same chance of making his seventh as if he had missed the previous six foul shots.”
In politics, similarly, there’s an assumption that raising a lot of money and running more commercials will provide an overwhelming advantage. But political scientists have “found that if one candidate ran 1,000 more commercials than his opponent in a county … that translated into a paltry 0.19 percent advantage in the vote.” Indeed: “The data shows that in state and national elections that are well-financed, television ad buys barely matter.”
Data can also highlight “patterns of behavior we haven’t yet noticed.” James Pennebaker, author of The Secret Life of Pronouns, found that self-confident people tend to use fewer personal pronouns — the opposite of what might be expected. Younger writers tend to use more downbeat words and older writers more “positive and future-tense words.” Liars also tend to use more upbeat words. And then there are The Beatles. John was known as the “smart” Beatle, but Paul’s lyrics “had more flexible and diverse structures” and George’s “were more cognitively complex.” Imagine that.