I am a big fan of the philosophy of Rene Descartes who famously coined the term “I think therefore I am.” As much as I enjoy staring at the stars and pondering the mysteries of our existence, I don’t think he quite applies in our work. Thinking that something exists or is real, simply does not make it a reality.
I find this to be a common theme the more and more I engage with social sector organizations. As I probe for the reasoning behind some decision making at the management levels, I often hear phrases like “everyone knows things aren’t working” or “I’m trusting my gut.”
A memory from childhood
These phrases remind me of a pivotal moment in my life that occurred one day in second grade on the swing set. The topic for debate: Santa Clause. When my friend Aaron floated the idea that Kris Kringle was anything but the most gracious and magical human being that ever existed, everything in my gut said otherwise. In fact, I remember my response being “but everyone knows he really does exist.” Over the next half hour, some of which lead to tears and second grade-level insults, my reasoning slowly took over. Even if he was magical, he would still have to go through chimneys – the math of that time alone makes it an impossibility. If everything else dies, why doesn’t he? Why would you choose reindeer for a mode of transportation? Boeing surely has a more efficient product.
In the end, my heart sank. First sadness, a little anger, then, an unexpected sense of empowerment. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had conquered my own bias and my deeply human desire to understand the world. Santa was an easy answer. Comfortable. Something I had always known. But, my belief in Santa Clause actually was preventing me from exploring true causes of those gifts on Christmas morning: the deep, unconditional love from my parents. Santa, in fact, stood in the way of me understanding something far more meaningful and important in this world.
We have biases in adulthood; probably more so than our second grade selves. Media outlet coverage makes it seem like the world is a far more violent and destructive place than it actually is. That traveling to foreign countries is an inherently dangerous endeavor. That Ebola or Zika will wipe out existence as we know it. We also believe that the work we are doing is making positive impact. It must. We’ve stayed up too many nights and worked too many weekends to believe otherwise. But, unfortunately, belief does not make it real.
How we can handle our biases
Since that day on the playground, I have moved away from my elementary school and Aaron has found work in Alaska so I need to search other places for my reality check. For me, and hopefully many of you, it is data. We have to ask the right questions and approach data analysis without letting our biases get in the way. An example of how we embody this at MCD is the use of a two-tailed t-test that we used in our analyses. To avoid boring you with statistics terms, the two tailed t-test is essentially allowing for a conclusion to go in more than one direction.
For example, we have a data set of job-training education session and number of people employed. We could as the question “did our education sessions lead to increased employment?” But, I have already begun with a bias. I am only concerned with the direction of "increasing." Our two-tailed approach asks the question differently: “what effect did our job training program have on employment?” This, instead, allows for the possibility of my job training program to decease employment. Perhaps, for instance, because it trained people on skills that were not supported by the current market.
As hard is it may be to swallow, we often find that we do not always make the world a better place. And, there is a lot of data to show it. But we have to accept it and not simply trust our gut. We are inherently bias. This is why there are many more people afraid of snakes than bathtubs despite the fact that bathtubs kill a far greater number of people than snake bites.
As an industry, we have found that abstinence education does little to reduce HIV. That giving money (cash transfer programs) does not lead to misuse of funds in the majority of cases. All because we did not let our simple belief make is so. Instead, we looked at the evidence with an open mind and proved the reality.
As depressing as that day was on the playground, I’m glad it happened. If I didn’t focus on the evidence and disregard my bias, I would have never understood the love and sacrifice my parents went through just to see me smile. And, if we want to truly make a positive change, we must accept the fact that what we currently believe to be true may, in fact, be preventing us from achieving something greater.