The spin on stats

Data yields more for less

Tethered to the success of the movie “Moneyball,” the New York Times ran a recent business piece identifying what it referred to as “Generation Moneyball” — young MBA types smitten by Michael Lewis’ book and the concept of using analytics to “exploit inefficiencies, allocate resources and challenge conventional wisdom.”

Despite hostility toward science in some political quarters, there’s certainly appeal in this notion of better — or more productive — living through new ways of utilizing data, in everything from solving crime to better understanding and anticipating media and cultural trends.

Yet while we have moved into an age of virtually infinite data, much of it is suspect, and making sense of the chaos often appears well beyond our grasp.

Understandably, this hasn’t dissuaded media outlets from pursuing such big-picture stories and companies from seeking to tap into the Web’s treasure trove of information to unearth the Next Big Thing. Indeed, every day seems to bring a new player pitching breakthrough technology in regard to social media, hoping to establish itself as an arbiter of the public pulse.

This hunt for meaning, however, frequently doesn’t survive close scrutiny. Take the survey in which almost a third of U.S. respondents said they intended to watch the Emmys (overstating the actual rating by a factor of about 10), or another putting interest in Comedy Central’s Charlie Sheen roast far ahead of the “Two and a Half Men” premiere — which outdrew it ratings-wise by more than four to one.

Overworked as we are, the media haven’t been especially adept at sifting through this flood of ancillary data and separating what’s truly significant from what merely sounds interesting, and what’s essentially meaningless.

The Wall Street Journal, for example, gave considerable play to a story about “decoding” the conversation on Twitter. Citing “the scientific appetite for the insights the data can yield,” the paper quoted an exec saying what can be culled from those 140-character bursts is “the ultimate customer research tool.”

Twitter undoubtedly has value as a communication medium, though transforming that into a clear referendum on pretty much anything remains questionable. Given the limits the format imposes, there’s ample room for skepticism about its ability to yield identifiable patterns, except perhaps to serve the company’s desire to reshape its chorus of voices into a marketable product.

Other companies, such as TiVo, are also eager to package their databases into something they can sell. It’s another permutation on spinning ratings, which now includes such elements as delayed DVR viewing and more detailed audience profiles, such as ABC’s recent press release touting its performance among “upscale categories, including high-income professionals or managers and those with four-plus years of college.”

Or, reading between the lines, “Hey advertisers, maybe not as many people watched us, but the right ones did.”

In terms of the zeitgeist, scientific knowledge as a means of thwarting evil has also taken a next step forward. CBS’ intriguing new series “Person of Interest” hinges on a machine capable of spitting out vaguely predictive data in the war against terror, moving the science fiction of “Minority Report” into a present-day milieu.

Ultimately, the allure of analyzing reams of assembled research lies in achieving a sense of security not readily associated with creative endeavors. The principal challenge is separating what has true real-world implications from diverting nonsense — namely, opt-in polls, instantaneous online comments and other tidbits that might fill time on cable news but which are only representative of whatever yahoo happened to hit “send” the fastest.

Although “Moneyball” focuses on baseball, as the Times piece noted, for execs receptive to new methods of mining data, “it’s a short step to applying similar principles in their own organizations” — a practice that could gain momentum as the next generation ascends the corporate ladder.

As a Jewish mother might say, it couldn’t hurt.

But if she happens to have a successful son or daughter, she might also tell you that when push comes to shove, trust your gut and swing for the fences.

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