Jack Uldrich
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Unlearn Your Intuition (Sometimes)

Posted in Algorithms, General, Politics

Recently, I gave two presentations on the topic of my latest book, Jump the Curve, at a State Managers Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I discussed a great many topics, but I would like to highlight just one: “Embracing counter-intuitive findings.”

Today, a great many people, including education, public health and law enforcement officials are certain as a result of years on the job that they know what works and what doesn’t work. For instance, an education official might be convinced that vouchers and charter school don’t work; a public health worker might lay claim to knowing which programs are most effective; and many law enforcement officials are positive that stronger criminal penalties lead to lower recidivism rates.

Over time, many of these personal opinions have morphed into “conventional wisdom” and, worse, because many of these state officials have risen to prominent places in the state bureaucracy this “conventional wisdom” has been adopted as de facto state policy.

As a result of exponential advances in the amount of information that is now being collected as well as the vast improvement in algorithms, however, savvy computer scientists and social scientists are now discovering some surprising things. I am a big fan of Ian Ayres excellent book, Super Crunchers, and throughout it he systematically demonstrates how new insights gleened from algorithms are forcing educators, public health and law enforcement officials (and many, many others) to revisited some of their most basic assumptions.

For instance, educators are learning how different policies effect different populations in different ways. The same is true for numerous other public policies. For too long it has been too easy to simply adopt a black-and-white, one-size-fits-all view of the world. There is now so much information available and it is being “crunched” in so many different ways that it is no longer sufficient to rely on intuition or “gut feeling.” Unless you can back up your adherence to “conventional wisdom” with hard facts, my recommendation is that you should “crunch” your assumptions against the data because there is a solid chance you might have to unlearn your intuition.



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