Lesson 6: Get the Data

In order to make good decisions, we cannot simply depend on rationality or our intellectual gifts. Just as dangerous as operational mistakes are structural mistakes. A bad process will spell disaster just as quickly as a mistake in a good process. After all, as much as people enjoy using hindsight to validate or condemn decisions, good decision-making is determined by the process, not by the result. McNamara certainly believes that in order to make good decisions, one must get the data.

McNamara uses his time at Ford Motor Company to prove his point. He discovered that 40,000 people died in car accidents every year, most of whom died not as a result of the impact, but from being thrown into the steering wheel. The egg carton inspired him to think about packaging, which led to all sorts of tests, and eventually, the seat belt. Thanks to McNamara and Ford’s research, some 250,000 lives have been saved.

This is an idea easy to relate to foreign policy. Millions of important decisions are made by State and Defense Department personnel and military servicemembers every day. If those decisions are not rooted in data, they are not rooted in fact. They are instead rooted in our biases – in brains which cannot even conceive the entire picture, much less understand it. Data is the basis for intelligent decision-making, and as such, we should strive to accumulate as much of it as possible.

However, data is only as reliable as those who compile and analyze it. We make mistakes and frequently allow our biases to corrupt our thought-process. For example, McNamara used a data-driven evaluation of the Vietnam War. His assumption was that there was a finite number of Communist Vietnamese and that if we used the number of enemy killed, the body count, we could accurately measure our progress.

Due to a combination of battlefield confusion and promotion-angling number-rounding, enemy casualties were higher on paper than in reality. The military reported these numbers to political leaders, who reported them to the media, which reported them to the people. Suddenly, the American people believe the Vietcong was in its death throes went it was actually about to launch their largest offensive of the war. Data must be viewed skeptically, with a critical eye, if it is to be used properly.

Data can be deceptive, but it is essential to good decision-making. If we do not get the data, we cannot make good decisions. We’re just taking shots in the dark, something apt to kill thousands, if not millions, in a nuclear age.

Jump to a lesson:
Lesson 1: Empathize with Your Enemy
Lesson 2: Rationality Will Not Save Us
Lesson 3: There’s Something Beyond One’s Self
Lesson 4: Maximize Efficiency
Lesson 5: Proportionality Should Be a Guideline in War
Lesson 6: Get the Data
Lesson 7: Belief and Seeing Are Often Both Wrong
Lesson 8: Be Prepared to Re-examine Your Reasoning
Lesson 9: In Order To Do Good, You May Have To Engage in Evil
Lesson 10: Never Say Never
Lesson 11: You Can’t Change Human Nature

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s