From business to politics, data analysis is seen as the key to life’s trickiest problems. Jones argues it also leads to a lack of imagination
The Oakland A’s, the scrappy underdogs in Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball, did more than ruin the careers of grizzled baseball strategists. The success that followed the team’s embrace of statistical analysis in the early 2000s, along with Lewis’s blithe dismissal of the old guard, led many to look at analytics as the answer to all our problems.
Chris Jones, a rookie sportswriter at the time, observed this shift from the sidelines. “I’d been talking to these old men about baseball,” he says. “All of a sudden I saw they were being cast aside. I knew these people. They had faces and voices and knowledge that I thought was valuable. The analytics movement killed many things that deserved to die, but like a lot of revolutions it went too far.”
This last sentiment underpins Jones’s new book, The Eye Test: A Case for Human Creativity in the Age of Analytics (Twelve), a spirited defense of human ingenuity.
“I don’t want to cast this as an anti-Moneyball argument, but I do believe that the fire the book lit now threatens to consume us,” he says. “Analytics has entered darker territory, where it’s consuming good people and good ideas. This book is me saying, OK, let’s hit pause for a while.”
In the book, Jones calls on a cast of characters—magicians and astrophysicists, carpenters and crime fighters—who have excelled by applying imagination, passion, and experience. “It goes back to those wise old men in baseball who are on the back foot, who feel they don’t have value,” he says. “But they do. They have institutional knowledge in their spine. And you see something similar in businesspeople, who just know when something is going to be in demand or about to fall off a cliff.”
The business world, in fact, seems to have caught an especially virulent strain of the Moneyball bug. “This rush toward analytics, everyone stampeding toward this one idea—that’s antithetical to every business proposition I ever heard,” Jones says. “If I wrote a book called Follow the Crowd, I would be run out of my TED Talk. But that’s what is happening. I’m making the case that, man, now’s the time for smart, creative people to step in and take advantage.”
This herd mentality, Jones adds, isn’t the only issue. “A lot of statistical analysis is based on the presumption that the future will operate as the past did, which reflects a lack of imagination,” he says. “At some point, what you know isn’t going to be enough—you need to have a sense of what might happen next, and a plan for what to do about it. But then, even the best business plans got flushed down the toilet in 2020. How are we going to navigate this new world? Data mining isn’t going to help with that.”