The data or the hunch

Ian Leslie at Intelligent Life: “THE GIFT FOR talent-spotting is mysterious, highly prized and celebrated. We love to hear stories about the baseball coach who can spot the raw ability of an erratic young pitcher, the boss who sees potential in the guy in the post room, the director who picks a soloist out of the chorus line. Talent shows are a staple of the TV schedules. We like to believe that certain people—sometimes ourselves—can just sense when a person has something special. But there is another method of spotting talent which doesn’t rely on hunches. In place of intuition, it offers data and analysis. Rather than relying on the gut, it invites us to use our heads. It tends not to make for such romantic stories, but it is effective—which is why, despite our affection, the hunch is everywhere in retreat.

Strike one against the hunch was the publication of “Moneyball” by Michael Lewis (2003), which has attained the status of a management manual for many in sport and beyond. Lewis reported on a cash-strapped major-league baseball team, the Oakland A’s, who enjoyed unlikely success against bigger and better-funded competitors. Their secret sauce was data. Their general manager, Billy Beane, had realised that when it came to evaluating players, the gut instincts of experienced baseball scouts were unreliable, and he employed statisticians to identify talent overlooked by the big clubs…..

These days, when a football club is interested in a player, it considers the average distance he runs in a game, the number of passes and tackles or blocks he makes, his shots on goal, the ratio of goals to shots, and many other details nobody thought to measure a generation ago. Sport is far from the only industry in which talent-spotting is becoming a matter of measurement. Prithwijit Mukerji, a postgraduate at the University of Westminster in London, recently published a paper on the way the music industry is being transformed by “the Moneyball approach”. By harvesting data from Facebook and Twitter and music services like Spotify and Shazam, executives can track what we are listening to in far more detail than ever before, and use it as a guide to what we will listen to next….

This is the day of the analyst. In education, academics are working their way towards a reliable method of evaluating teachers, by running data on test scores of pupils, controlled for factors such as prior achievement and raw ability. The methodology is imperfect, but research suggests that it’s not as bad as just watching someone teach. A 2011 study led by Michael Strong at the University of California identified a group of teachers who had raised student achievement and a group who had not. They showed videos of the teachers’ lessons to observers and asked them to guess which were in which group. The judges tended to agree on who was effective and ineffective, but, 60% of the time, they were wrong. They would have been better off flipping a coin. This applies even to experts: the Gates Foundation funded a vast study of lesson observations, and found that the judgments of trained inspectors were highly inconsistent.

THE LAST STRONGHOLD of the hunch is the interview. Most employers and some universities use interviews when deciding whom to hire or admit. In a conventional, unstructured interview, the candidate spends half an hour or so in a conversation directed at the whim of the interviewer. If you’re the one deciding, this is a reassuring practice: you feel as if you get a richer impression of the person than from the bare facts on their résumé, and that this enables you to make a better decision. The first theory may be true; the second is not.

Decades of scientific evidence suggest that the interview is close to useless as a tool for predicting how someone will do a job. Study after study has found that organisations make better decisions when they go by objective data, like the candidate’s qualifications, track record and performance in tests. “The assumption is, ‘if I meet them, I’ll know’,” says Jason Dana, of Yale School of Management, one of many scholars who have looked into the interview’s effectiveness. “People are wildly over-confident in their ability to do this, from a short meeting.” When employers adopt a holistic approach, combining the data with hunches formed in interviews, they make worse decisions than they do going on facts alone….” (More)