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How To Stop Bad Data From Killing You or Your Business

Bad data is dangerous to business, society, and you. Our relationship with bad data can be even more dangerous. Here’s one way to lower the risk.


This is about a couple of research nerds – me and John Dick, who heads up Civic Science, an amazing company that is changing the way we understand consumers and ourselves.


If your eyes are already rolling at the word “research”, you might want to read this anyway, because your life might depend on it. More on that later.


I’ve been a fan of John Dick and Civic Science since I stumbled on them a while back. I wanted to learn more about this guy who reminded me so much of myself when I was a research CEO at his age. So I interviewed him.


Let’s start with the fact that he is outspoken and unfiltered. And, unafraid to brag about his work.


When he says, “We’ve done more research than any other company in the history of mankind”, it sounds impossible. The history of mankind?


But he backs it up, which gives both John and Civic Science a huge advantage in a world of fake news, stale surveys, and a super-mobile public who aren’t waiting by the phone to talk to a researcher.


He's not a fan of most of research out there today - or the media that promote it. He says, “News outlets that publish horse-race polls are like restaurants leaving the tails on shrimp in a plated, saucy dish. They might have visual appeal, but they’re otherwise useless, messy, and stupid.”


Did I say he was outspoken? Why is he so passionate and excited about getting research right? Why does it matter so much?


The best way to answer that question is with one of John’s pet peeves.


It’s the way that executives, journalists, and even ordinary people are being misled, often dangerously, by a combination of “old” data and a dangerous, typically human mindset called “confirmation bias”.


This combination of old data and “confirmation bias” could actually cost you your life. It can cost a business its customers. It can generate fake news, even if it’s unintentional.


Here’s why.


It’s because our human species tends to look for data or information that “confirms” what we already believe. This is our ‘bias’. We look for information and experiences that support the way we already think.


It’s one reason that people don’t change their mind on politics or religion. Or even how to cook a turkey.


This confirmation bias is the reason that journalists or podcasters might ignore data that doesn’t fit with the story they want to present. They just ignore the facts or go looking for something that supports them– even if it’s not true. Which creates more bad data.


And, that’s how “confirmation bias” can kill you. Here’s a couple of examples.


If you go looking for medical information online because it supports something you want to believe - even though it’s “old” or scientifically flawed - you could die when you apply it. Confirmation bias kills people every day in America.


The same thing can happen in business when leaders ignore data they don’t like. The business can be hurt or even die. It happened to the newspaper industry because the owners and publishers didn’t want to believe how the internet was crunching their business. It’s happening to Elon Musk and many other business leaders who just don't like what they hear.


John notes, “If you are an Alpha business leader, you have to be able to admit to yourself - the thing you used to think was true isn’t true anymore.


That’s why he thinks Civic Science is right for today.


He starts by taking a fair shot at the weaknesses in online surveys. “People aren’t themselves on social media. They don’t want to speak out. In politics, we saw an example of this with the way the center-right weren’t heard in polling. At the same time, trends and behaviors are changing faster than ever while surveys are slow and cumbersome.”


He continues, “Covid was an innovation accelerator in research and marketing. Companies needed an always-on, fast insight into consumers. We were able to capitalize on that and grew exponentially in the last 2 ½ years because of it.”


His innovation was to dramatically increase the number of people he could reach with survey questions and then give them feedback that showed how they compared to others on that topic.


His partner pool, which includes Microsoft News among many, allows him to ask millions of people just 4 to 5 questions at a time and get large realtime sample with reliable answers. It’s been so successful that he plans to grow his surveys by 500% in 2023. It’s a bold, innovative way to serve the need for lots of “real” data that can challenge confirmation bias among business leaders, journalists, and the public.


To put him to the test, I asked him for some top-line thoughts on the best and worst news looking into 2023. He said:


“The Good news is that inflation will come down faster than people expect. Financial stimulation has helped. The job market has stayed strong but about 20% of people didn’t fare as well as others. I’m bullish on the Gen Z cohort. There will be a huge emphasis on mental health without stigma. Depolarization across the mass will increase because more people are self-identifying as independent.


“The Bad news is a pernicious and vastly increased degree of inequality. The income and wealth gap is growing. The longer-term implications of Covid are becoming clearer– the education gap grew because of lack of access to technology and classrooms. We still have unreliable internet in a big swath of the country which needs attention and, we need to figure out an advertising supported information industry or we’ll have a problem because the people who can afford to pay for quality journalism have an information advantage while ‘ground truth’ gets lost.”


If you’d like to know more, here's an article from Forbes with a lot more detail about John, Civic Science, and research.

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