Unexpected Examples of the Very Real Power of Data and Analysis

To my surprise, baseball and Shakespeare have both recently underscored for me the importance of the mission and values of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, putting in to focus why I made the decision to join this organization. Not two elements I would expect to find sharing a Venn diagram, but the common theme has to do with the importance of data and the power of analysis.

By baseball, I mean the hit movie Moneyball (based on the book by Michael Lewis), which examines the innovative strategy put into play by general manager Billy Beane. He depended on close analysis of the proven performance by a more or less motley crew of players to build a team within tight budget constraints. What these players held in common was an ability to play at a level that exceeded their value as judged by conventional metrics. Beane stands for the power of data over hunch, and for a rejection of the accumulated experience of anecdotal evidence, a significant departure in the culture of baseball.

And by Shakespeare I mean a recent essay by Stephen Marche, a columnist most frequently read in Esquire, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. In a Sunday Times Magazine piece, Marche presents a compelling and timely critique of the durable legend that Shakespeare’s plays were written by someone else—in this case by Edward de Vere, earl of Oxford, most recently aired in the current film Anonymous. Marche dismisses the substance of this implausible narrative with a handful of compelling examples. (For instance: De Vere died before the events that inspired the plays MacBeth and The Tempest—let alone before the plays were written.)

Marche’s more important point is about the erosion of a culture of rigor and the threat that presents for all of us, outside of the somewhat restricted fields of theater and sport. The growing sense that it is somehow unnecessary, or even an affront, to speak from a position of informed expertise has profound implications on a wide swath of issues that matter a great deal to many of us and that will most likely matter more in the future, from climate change to the economic consequences of U.S. government default.

Moneyball offers compelling testimony to the real-world impact of data, making it possible to come to a deeper understanding of the processes that make things happen. It is easy to see the parallels to many thorny problems we confront—think education, or health care—that are themselves often understood through the power of anecdote. And Marche’s essay, titled ‘Wouldn’t it be Cool if Shakespeare Wasn’t Shakespeare?, speaks to the importance of beginning with the data and building understanding from there, rather than starting with a hypothesis and retro-fitting the evidence to accommodate it.

I am willing to concede that if someone were to make a movie out of CEP’s recent report, The State of Foundation Performance Assessment: A Survey of Foundation CEOs, it probably wouldn’t serve as a good vehicle for Brad Pitt. But the arguments pressed by these two examples drawn from the culture of our times take me back to the mission of CEP: To provide data and insight so philanthropic funders can better define, assess and improve their effectiveness. And to the vision: We seek a world in which pressing social needs are more effectively addressed.

In an age when the challenges we face are so large and complex, I just don’t see how we get to that world without a culture of rigor and analysis. We must maintain the ability to step away from conventional understanding and from the pleasures of conspiratorial thinking when the data rules them out.

Since leaving the Boston Foundation this summer to join CEP, colleagues have asked me why I made the jump from a well-established community foundation with a long record of visible accomplishment to join a young nonprofit with a mission that can seem abstract at times.

This is why. Because I want to spread the message that data matters, that rigor matters, if we are to make the changes we wish to see in our society.

 

David Trueblood is vice president — Communications & Programming at CEP.

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