Towards Dataism

Over the last months, one of the books that I’ve been reading is Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari. It’s a really worthwhile read and I can warmly recommend it. One of the key ideas that he brings up in the last part of the book is the evolution of religions that mankind seems to go through. From the traditional religions where power is put in mystic outside sources, e.g. God, we currently largely follow humanism as a religion. In humanism, the source of reference or the anchoring point is your deepest, truest feelings, resulting in a model where if something feels right for you and you’re not hurting anyone else, you should be free to pursue whatever you want.

Humanism is the religion du jour in most of the western world, but it it based on a fundamental assumption: that there is such a thing as a self. We all feel as if we’re individuals, but more recent psychological research currently seems to confirm what Buddhism has employed as a starting premise: there is no such thing as a self. The human psyche may best be described as a set of competing “subpersonalities” and our consciousness attaches itself to whatever subpersonality that happens to be on top right now.

As a response to the above, Harari claims that we’re moving towards a new religion: dataism. Rather than making decisions based on what the gods tell us or based on what feels right, we take decisions based on what the data tells us. Although data seems objective and outside of the subjective human experience, make no mistake: this really is a religious viewpoint that we’re taking. Anyone who has worked with data knows how easy it is to select and correlate data to one’s biases and preferences and then to interpret it in a way that confirms whatever initial beliefs we started with.

Still, for all its challenges, dataism still is a much better starting point that relying on the contemporary interpretation of old books or on whatever feels right. What feels right is typically based on our experiences to date and, in a fast changing world, it seldom is the best starting point for decision making. As long as we take a scientific approach and actively seek to limit biases and preconceived beliefs, data is superior to other foundations for decision making.

Now the important point here is that although the above mostly concerns individuals, companies operate in the same way: although we often pretend that there is a hierarchy and that the company speaks with a single voice, it is obvious, even to the casual observer, that there are multiple “subpersonalities” inside companies as well. Informal networks of people that believe the same about the best way forward for the company, how “we” work and should work, what is important and what can be safely ignored, etc.

Similarly, decision making based on humanistic principles, i.e. whatever feels right, is prevalent in companies as well and although many companies use data for decision making. Often the data is “massaged” to have it say what the company wants it to say or there is no data available and companies take huge and costly decisions based on beliefs, rather than running small experiments to gather the data for further decision making.

Concluding, individuals and companies alike tend to make decisions mostly based on humanistic principles, i.e. what feels right. This tends to lead to low-quality decisions, especially in situations where past experiences and learnings are a detriment, rather than asset, because of the fast changes happening in industry and society. The superior alternative is to adopt dataism as one’s starting point for life. However, this requires significant discipline to avoid falling into biases and preconceived beliefs. Finally, although data can be used to a much more significant extent than today, we should remember that data is not available for everything. As Einstein said, not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.

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