Ignorant vs Wrong

Lance Accountability, Discipline, Ideas, Leadership, Simplicity Leave a Comment

In 2012, Apple released its “Maps” app to try to keep its loyal users from leaving its Cupertino-centered universe and using the mapping wonder of its rival, Google Maps. The epic fail of the Maps release instantly became evident. Beyond the obvious technical glitches of the melting cities and missing images, there was a much more fundamental problem: wrong directions. In one of the more frightening stories of the marriage of tech reliance and tech fail, Apple’s Maps led out of town drivers to cross an airport runway en route to the terminal at Fairbanks International Airport:

At least twice in the past three weeks, drivers from out of town who followed the directions on their iPhones not only reached airport property, but also crossed the runway and drove to the airport ramp side of the passenger terminal.

“These folks drove past several signs. They even drove past a gate. None of that cued them that they did something inappropriate,” said Melissa Osborn, chief of operations at the Fairbanks airport.

Angie Spear, marketing director for the airport, said the incidents show how much blind faith drivers who are unfamiliar with an area will place in their electronic gadgets’ instructions.

“No matter what the signs say, the map on their iPhone told them to proceed this way,” Spear said.

After airport personnel, police and the TSA converged on the driver of a rental car during the Sept. 6 daylight runway crossing, the airport staff complained through the attorney general’s office to Apple, said Spear.

The problem was supposed to have been fixed promptly, according to reports form the Apple legal department to the attorney general’s office and Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, but it hasn’t been, Spear and Osborn said.

“We asked them to disable the map for Fairbanks until they could correct it, thinking it would be better to have nothing show up than to take the chance that one more person would do this,” Osborn said.

A “lot of legal speak” ensued, Spear said.

On Sept. 20, it happened again. The airport has since closed the aircraft access route to Taxiway Bravo from the Float Pond Road.

As you lead your organization, is it better to have no information or bad information? Too often, we actively choose the latter, excusing inaccurate data, unsound polling methods or statistically insufficient response rates as “directionally accurate” and by repeating the mantra “some data is better than none.”

But is it?

At least in the absence of data, the lack of information is known (those famous “known unknowns“). For all but the most hubristic of leaders, the known absence of information brings to the decision-making process some measure of humility; it’s more difficult to be rigidly certain when one is also aware of the lack of evidence supporting one’s conclusion.

It is psychologically comforting and socially safer to hide behind some fig leaf of data, even if that data is wrong, incomplete, or insufficient. Nobody can blame you for the failed outcome of your decision because at least you tried to rely on the best data available. It’s not like you just went off and ignored data and went with your own gut, right?

However, while it may be safer for you personally, giving “data” a position of reverence in your decision making process simply because it has the appearance of real information is a recipe for bad decisions, no less so than the “appeal to authority” form of argument is a sure sign of a bad argument. Both look proper at first blush, but fall apart under rigorous scrutiny … or are pulled asunder by the dynamic forces of Reality.

Yielding to data no matter how thin may feel like a more scientific and diligent way to make decisions. While it may have begun that way, at some point the worship of Data no matter the validity ferments into the decision-making safe hole for the lazy and the cowardly. It takes a lot more effort and courage to look at the data, judge it to be invalid, and take ownership of the results of deciding to go in a different direction. In that case, you will have nowhere to hide should your decision prove to be wrong.

To be clear: this isn’t an anti-data argument against seeking out information to better inform decisions. Rather, it is simply a plea:

  • to always apply rigor in judging how much weight the data should receive;
  • to guard against allowing the scientific-y appearance of the data and its process of collection from becoming a default badge of authority for the data itself; and
  • to never simply surrender your own ability to think and analyze in deference to “the data.”

Use the data. Check the maps. But, for heaven’s sake, look out the window and ignore them when your eyes, your brain, and your gut are telling you something different.


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