Think Intangibly

When my doctor husband first mentioned the trendy phrase “evidence-based medicine,” I asked, “What was it before – guess-based medicine?” It’s popular in this age of Big Data (information from everywhere about everyone) to call almost anything evidence-based, which sounds pretty scientific. Scientific is good, isn’t it?

We are so used to reading charts and statistics that we think all subjects can be quantified. It’s science! Will your child be successful in school? Test scores will tell you, right? Can you find true love? and e-Harmony have a formula. Should government provide mass transit to people who either don’t own cars or prefer to use them sparingly? Let’s crunch the numbers and see.

In the old Ann Arbor News, I always enjoyed how the football writers would evaluate wins and losses and then add up the “intangibles” in predicting the outcome of Michigan football games. Intangibles were things such as the coach’s dislike for the other coach, the need to win on home field, and decades of historical factoids. If you’re trying to get a bunch of teenagers to win a football game or if you’re trying to figure out public policy, those intangibles can be very important.

Last week I visited a friend who is taking some courses at MIT on Public Sector Dispute Resolution. I attended class with her and had the good fortune to meet one of the gurus in this area. Lawrence Susskind applies consensus-building techniques to issues such as urban planning and international water disputes. His blog contains a fascinating discussion of Participatory Action Research (PAR) as a counterpoint to the usual “scientific” statistical methods. Simply put, he advises social scientists to get down and dirty with specific community projects rather than relying solely on numbers and surveys that lead to incorrect generalizations about social change.

Charts and statistics are just a jumping-off point. They can’t necessarily predict future activity and they certainly can’t measure community benefit. My favorite example is the non-motorized path the city built on the north side of Washtenaw Avenue. During the public meetings about it, numerous residents came out to complain that there was no evidence that anyone would use it. Of course there was no evidence – there was no sidewalk! Now that it exists, hundreds of people walk and bike there and more people are willing to take the bus because the stops on that side of the road are accessible. The intangible is that the city made a statement in favor of non-motorized transportation, regardless of “evidence.”

In the coming weeks we will hear a lot of blather from the “we hate everything” group that now has been formed to oppose the proposed AAATA millage in May. The millage will support more efficient bus routes and less waiting time for bus riders, but expect the naysayers to drag out all kinds of statistics showing each penny each resident pays for each hubcap on each tire on each bus. Here are some of the intangibles:  1) As a relatively wealthy community, we owe it to those who aren’t so wealthy to provide reliable transportation; 2) It’s not all about “me” –you might not take the bus but someone else you depend on probably does; and 3) Improved transit provides incentives for employment and for retail opportunities.

Whether it’s the transportation millage, a new building, or crosswalk improvements, be wary of those who rely solely on statistics. It takes social conscience to figure some of these things out. Read up on all the facts and figures, but then feel the love.