Data, Optimism and The Art of Denial

“I’m not strange, weird, off, nor crazy, my reality is just different from yours” wrote Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

My adventures with data and analytics have often landed me in situations where I have wondered whose version of reality is the right one. In some cases there are genuine doubts, in most others, it is plain mind games and politics at work. Like in some recent situations.

If one listened to our Test captain Dhoni’s recent press conference after the drawn New Zealand test, one would have felt optimistic about India’s overseas test prospects.

The captain focused on how things were getting better series by series, how matches are getting closer and we are getting into situations of strength but not winning, and how our team was getting useful overseas experience and some good performances.

One would have almost missed the fact that the Indian cricket team managed to save in five days, a test that they should have won in three and a half days. The facts also say that we have won none and lost 10 tests overseas since mid-2011 when Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman were still playing. It essentially means there is a problem.

But optimism and positive thinking, skillfully used, can help shield denial and justify one’s fantastical version of reality!

denialSimilarly, I remembered the Congress party’s stance after it lost 4 out of 5 assembly elections last December. Many of their leaders kept saying that they won Mizoram and in Chattisgarh the contest was quite close, and if one looked at the vote share, it wasn’t that bad, after all.

In their view, it did not mean anything, because even in the past, BJP had won assembly elections but lost the general elections in six months after that.

It is quite easy to interpret data to suit one’s purposes and tell lies skillfully. When the news is bad, it is better to not look at the figures that matter and do your interpretations creatively, hence mastering the art of denial, and creating your own version of reality.

I saw our finance minister do the same earlier this week during the interim budget.

In underplaying the lack of even decent growth in India’s economy, the minister compared India’s growth with other developing economies (which were carefully selected) – and then India suddenly started looking not that bad.

The facts, though, say that India’s growth over the past 3 years compared to even itself a few years earlier, coupled with consistent 9% (or more?) inflation is not enough to even generate the number of jobs India needs to keep its youth gainfully employed.

But in not looking at the data that matters, the minister skilfully demonstrated the power of positive thinking and, in the process, mastered the art of denial, thereby creating his own version of reality.

I have experienced this often, and while I spend my working day trying to convince clients on the power of data and analytics, I often wonder whether anyone is really interested in seeing or showing or doing anything about the real data.

While using the data to suit your own circumstances and position is fairly common; but when confronted with bad news that is plain to see, most people neglect the data, and shield denial with a face of optimism, creating their own version of a reality that doesn’t really exist.

Optimism is great but when the message is bad, closing your eyes does not mean that everyone else is blind.

Perhaps there is some truth in what the French philosopher Jules de Gaultier once said, that “Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality.”

3 Responses to Data, Optimism and The Art of Denial

  1. Sid says:

    🙂 So true Ranjit! Got a taste of it at a workplace not far back in the past…even though the country was doing red,marketing would always show as green and specifically w.r.t to select media 😉 The ring leader blew his trumpet loud under the umbrage of big daddy and declared that stupid piece of crap as a world wide format.But the rest of the world were no ordinary suckers….they had their own axe or hammer to grind…:)

  2. seshu says:

    In these times where social media drives everything, there is hardly any room for negativity. Everything ought to have a positive spin.

  3. Sid says:

    Whats your point?!!!

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