Data and the Human Factor

Data is huge these days. We run the numbers, intepret the information the best we can, then make gigantic decisions all based on, and sometimes just because of, the data. We’ve learned to gather all kinds of data – faster, better and more accurate than before. With that data amazing things are discovered and great innovation can happen. But, and I’m just throwing this out for discussion, what about the “human factor”? What about the “gut” or the “insight” or “instinct” or “experience,” or whatever you want to call the “special powers” bestowed upon us by our Creator? Where does that come into play? Great question. I hereby submit three recent “human factor” scenarios to contemplate. ( Spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the Clint Eastwood film, “Sully”).


Now, I’m not a huge sports watcher, but I do like the big games and the fun and excitement around certain major events in sports. The stories behind all those events are even more thrilling for me. Here’s the story:

It’s Game 7 in the World Series and the Chicago Cubs haven’t won the series in 108 years. To make matters more difficult for them the Cleveland Indians have the momentum. (I’m doing this by memory, so bare with me.) The Indians tie the game – it’s 6 -6 and it’s the 10th inning. The rains come and delay the game about 15 minutes. Then the Cubs are up to bat, Top of the 10th. The first guy gets up to bat – sorry but I forget his name – and he hits a single. He’s replaced by a better runner on first base. Then the next guy gets up and hits a high, long ball, deep to center field (I thought it was going to be a home run). Anyway, the guy on first gets to second, and there is now 1 out.

So, here’s the very interesting thing; I remember watching it very specifically and commenting on what was going on to my wife. The Cleveland team meets at the mound and the Cleveland coach starts studying some papers. (The cameras actually showing him looking at the papers) I’m guessing there’s all kinds of data on those papers that tell all kinds of stories. The big question is, “Do we intentionally walk Rizzo (the next batter) or do we pitch to him, then intentionally walk Zobrist (the batter after Rizzo)?” Data. Data. Data. Tons of it all over the tablets and papers the coach and others are studying. And guess what, all the data points to walk Rizzo. It seemed right. He was doing better statistically than Zobrist. The data was right there. So, they walk Rizzo and now there are 2 men on base, 1 out, Top of the 10th. Here comes Zobrist, who according to the data was 0-4 for the game. (For all you non-baseball players, that means he didn’t get a hit the last 4 times he was up to bat in the game). The data says “this is the guy to walk.” First pitch – ball 1. Second pitch – STRIKE! 1 and 1. Thrid pitch – STRIKE! One more strike and Zobrist is out and the data proves right. Next pitch – foul ball. Still 1 and 2. You could feel the tension. The pitcher winds up, thows the ball and…. CRACK! Zobrist hits a double and takes the Cubs to a 7-6 lead. Cubs go on to win and Zobrist is the MVP. Data said one thing, the human spirit said another.


You all probably know it by now, but here’s a quick refresher. “Sully” is the true story of Chesley Sullenberger, a pilot who landed his damaged airplane on the Hudson River to become an American hero. There’s a point in the movie, after the “landing”, after all the people are saved, when all the “experts” start reviewing the data. They use the data to simulate flight tests to see if the landing in the Hudson could be avoided. The data keeps pouring in. Multiple flight simulations show that Sully could have done something different, he didn’t have to land in the Hudson. Statements like, “tests indicate” and “the data demonstrates” are heard multiple times. Finally, Sully and his co-pilot, the press and tons of engineers and executives are in a big meeting room, once again watching simulators show a better outcome than what actually happened. Simulators mind you – Simulators based on just the raw data. Then, Sully is allowed to speak, and this exchange happens:

SULLY: “Can we get serious now? We’ve all heard about the computer simulations, and I can’t believe we are watching actual sims, but I don’t quite believe we still have not taken into account. the human factor.”

Board Member: “Human piloted simulations show that you can make it back to the airport.”

Sully: “No they don’t. These pilots were not behaving like human beings, like people experiencing this for the first time.”

Board Member: “They are reacting like you did.”

Sully: “Immedaitely after the bird strike they are heading back to the airport. Just as in the computer sims, correct?”

Board Member: “Correct”

Sully: “They obviously knew the turn and exactly what heading to fly. They did not run a check. They did not switch on the APU.”

Board Member: “They had all the same parameters that you faced.”

Sully: “No one warned us. No one said you are going to lose two engines at a lower altitude than any jet in history. But be cool, just make a left turn to head back to LaGuardia like you’re going back to pick up the milk. This was dual engine loss at 2,800 feet followed by an immediate water landing with 155 souls on board. No one has ever trained for an incident like that. No one.”

So, what am I (and Sully) saying? Data is good. Data helps us understand all kinds of trends and behaviors, but it can’t (at least not for now) replace the human factor. Sully is exonerated from any charges and they deem his act as an heroic one.


It doesn’t matter if you like him or not, or if you didn’t want him to win the presidency. The point of this exhibit is that all the data (and the pollsters interpreting the data) pointed to Trump losing. But he didn’t. Unexpected things happened (like Zobrist hitting the double, anunforseen rain delay, and Sully making a gut decision to land on the Hudson) and Trump won.

Now, Before you think I’m a “datar hater” (as they might say in England) just because I work in a highly subjective industry that’s notorious for making ONLY gut choices, I assure you that I’m not. I like data. I like trying to understand it. But I like people better. I like trying to understand them better. And the human factor should always be part of any equation that has on the other side – other humans. So, crunch, roll, toss and spin the data to your heart’s content – then go with your gut!

Casey Williams