Seth Godin, a master blogger and bestselling author over in New York highlighted, once posted on the tension between faith and data. First, allow me to distinguish between those two words.
I define “faith” as a belief in something without any evidence and often in the face of evidence to the contrary. Boiled down having faith is the desire to believe. And humans want to believe what they wish to be true.
Sometimes faith is a negative. Witness, for example, all the bloodshed committed and endured in the name of religions, notorious for demanding faith in many things for which there is no empirical evidence and with each religion claiming competing and opposing “truths” for faiths at odds with each other. Religious institutions demand faith from their followers.
And yet faith is what drives people to push on through great hardship and challenge to ultimately succeed. Faith inspires people to attempt and actually achieve amazing things often in the face of ridicule, harassment, even “proof” held up and waved in their faces to demonstrate their foolhardiness. Faith triumphs. But is it really important?
People with such faith often seem to have the last laugh, though. And let us remember the many millions sacrificed, enslaved, tortured, murdered, injured, emotionally exploited, and financially manipulated in the name of religious faith. And yet faith propels people to rise above such horrors. Without faith people become resigned, cynical, and apathetic. They become embittered and give up or lash out.
“Data,” on the other hand, is evidence organized into information. All information is composed of data. Sometimes the data is clearly true and sometimes it’s clearly false and yet at other times it’s unclear, confusing, or at best anecdotal. As evidence, however, data and the information derived from it are held up as “proof.”
Empirical evidence is evidence that is clearly, objectively, and quantifiably measured and holds up to scrutiny and testing especially via scientific, mathematical processes. In today’s Information Age, however, the sheer avalanche of data feels like there’s too much for anyone to handle. We behave as if data is more valuable than gold bullion. But is data really important?
“Data crowds out faith,” blogs Mr. Godin. And yet, he says, without such data people won’t believe. Without anything to go on they won’t believe anything, or rather, they use that as an excuse not to believe anything challenging their current beliefs.
Yet too much data overwhelms. Too much information becomes a flood that drowns out all listening. People want to run away from it. I’ve certainly been guilty of bringing forth a mountain of data to back up my arguments, and I’ve also been guilty of taking great leaps of faith without much data and sometimes even in spite of data.
The “real mission,” as Seth Godin sees it is “emotional connection.” That’s what’s really important here. We’ve been blinded by fool’s gold.
The bottom line is that people will believe whatever they want to believe regardless of what is put in front of them. It does not matter if the issue is sales and marketing, political and economic policy, historical controversies, religious doctrines, UFOs, ghosts, God, whatever. People may be influenced and manipulated in their belief structures, and ultimately they believe whatever they want. A successful belief is not based upon purported facts and figures or even faith. A successful belief is based upon the strength and power of the emotional connection between the person and the idea they choose to believe in enough to embrace.
When entire populations get caught up in their emotional connection to a belief critical then mass occurs for good or evil. On of my history professors from Hampden-Sydney College, Virginia, used to say to us “what people believed happened in history is often more important than what actually occurred.” Entire nations will make choices and take action based upon belief in various histories that later turn out to be false. It’s the emotional connection to any belief, even a false belief unsupported by the facts that drives people into action.
Comments regarding President Barack Obama by Joe Klein in a 2010 issue of Timecaught my eye. Obama, despite his charismatic oratory, is a cerebral “loner” away from the public pulpit. Klein noted that two other “arid” intellectuals who were elected president, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, were each ousted after one term and followed by “world-class emoters.”
Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were famous for their folksy ability to reach out and connect with not just the masses but with those in private meetings. Both were able to reach out across party lines to hold the center together. The American people threw out a Democrat and a Republican who were arid loners despite their intelligence and voted in a Republican and a Democrat, respectively, who manifested and displayed empathy and high emotional intelligence.
Both Reagan and Clinton were reelected. Another example would be the gifted intellectual Herbert Hoover, one-term Republican president, followed by the folksy orator and brilliant relationship-oriented Franklin D. Roosevelt. Democrat FDR went on to become the only four-term American President. Hoover, accomplished with many achievements, is, however, best remembered for “ignoring” or “losing” the Great Depression. Roosevelt, despite his mistakes, remains an American favorite for “winning” both the Great Depression and the Second World War.
The best salespeople are those who enroll others to believe in products and services enough to buy them. As my former father-in-law, a highly successful salesman and former fighter pilot, once told me, “People buy what people want.” When I pointed out that advertising uses psychology to manipulate people to consume what they think they want, he merely shrugged his shoulders and stated again that ultimately “people buy what people want.”
As critical as health care reform and addressing catastrophic climate change are, just to name two pressing problems, President Obama is faced with an enormous problem: many Americans intellectually understand these are important issues, but they don’t care. They really don’t care. They don’t have an emotional connection to those problems. In fact the way American voters see their public servants addressing those issues actually repels them. The mangling of health care reform by both Democrats and Republicans, for example, particularly dismays Americans.
Without emotional connection the deepest faith and the most impressive spreadsheet or encyclopedia or scientific research or PowerPoint presentation means nothing. The same can be said for socio-political movements and their champions as well as for companies and their sales reps.
Emotions have often been ridiculed. Without mastering how to relate to one’s fellow human beings, however, even the mightiest fall.
Klein, Joe. “Now What? Hitting the Reset Button/Starting Over,” Time. Vol. 175, No. 4, February 1, 2010: 22-29.http://www.time.com/time/politics/article/0,8599,1955401,00.html
Godin, Seth. “Too much data leads to not enough belief,” Seth’s Blog. January 21, 2010.http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2010/01/too-much-data-leads-to-not-enough-belief.html
William Dudley Bass
January 28, 2010
Revised and January 29, 2012
NOTE: This essay was first published as “Faith vs. Data vs. ‘What’s Really Important Here,’” on my earlier current affairs blog At the Brink with William Dudley Bass, on January 28, 2010, at http://atthebrinkwithwilliamdudleybass.blogspot.com/2010/01/faith-vs-data-vs-whats-really-important.html. It was edited, revised and re-published on my new website On Earth at the Brink this January 29, 2012. It is reprinted here in Tuesdays with Deborah with my permission as the Author. Thank you.
Copyright © 2010, 2012 by William Dudley Bass.