Data? We Don't Need No Stinking Data.

July 13, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

There it was again, the phrase that makes me cringe. This time it was in a letter to the New York Times Magazine in response to a column by Rob Walker on a marketing strategy the Hyatt Hotel chain was using to increase customer loyalty. The hotel would give “random acts of generosity” (like picking up your bar tab) in hopes of generating gratitude.

Walker also cited some supporting research from a management journal. That was his mistake. The letter writer knew better.
Well, we finally know why the American economy is in trouble. The Journal of Marketing accepted an academic paper exploring whether gratitude kindles a feeling of obligation. Could anything be more patently obvious without any research? John Milton knew this 400 years ago: “The debt immense of endless gratitude.”
-- Bob House, Phoenix [emphasis added]
Mr. House did not use the customary phrase, “we don’t need research to tell us,” though he did say flatly that such research is not only unnecessary but harmful to the economy. Who needs data when you have Paradise Lost?

Week one in my course I tell students that even when an idea is obvious, we still need to get evidence to confirm it. I don’t mention gratitude, though I do cite other obvious facts, like the fact that far more people die in fires each year than by drowning, a fact well supported by logic and common sense, though unfortunately not by the evidence.

Sometimes speakers use “we don’t need statistics” after they’ve cited the statistics. More often, when someone says, “We don’t need statistics to tell us. . . .” it’s a pretty good bet that there are no data to support the statement, or worse, that the evidence supports an opposite conclusion. Here are a couple of samples from my files:

Does watching porn or listening rap make kids more promiscuous? Why waste time figuring out how to get data on the question? Just take it from Irving Kristol (William’s dad) from some years back writing in the Wall Street Journal:
is it not reasonable to think that there may also be such a connection between our popular culture and the plagues of sexual promiscuity among teenagers, teenage illegitimacy, and, yes, the increasing number of rapes committed by teenagers? Here again, we don’t really need social science to confirm what common sense and common observations tell us to be the case.
Can anyone really believe that soft porn in our Hollywood movies, hard porn in our cable movies, and violent porn in our “rap” music is without effect?
By “here again,” he apparently means that there are several other areas where we are better off not trying to get evidence.

Is the death penalty more of a deterrent than long prison terms? No point in doing all those regressions. Just take it from Charles Rice, a law professor at Notre Dame, writing in The New American
The best evidence that the death penalty has a uniquely deterrent impact . . . is not based on statistics but is rather based on common sense and experience. Death is an awesome and awful penalty, qualitatively different from a prison term . . . Common sense can sufficiently verify that the prospect of punishment by death does exert a restraining effect on some criminals who would otherwise commit a capital crime.

For what it’s worth, I did a quick Internet search. Here are the results.
  • “We don’t need studies” - Google - 791; Bing - 605
  • “We don’t need statistics” Google - 329, Bing - 262
Of course, we don’t really need statistics to tell us that these phrases are a refuge for those who have no evidence.

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