Why Data Matter

By Dan T. Blumstein
Originally published by the Huffington Post

I've been silent during the recent election run-up because of what I viewed as a major disconnect between data and punditry, and because important issues that I care about were simply not discussed (more on that later). Data never lie, but pundits are people, and people like to put their own spin on what they believe.

As a working scientist, I know that the proper analysis of data will produce robust answers to a variety of questions. A scientific approach is never completed because new data can, and should, change one's conclusions. Nonetheless, it's the relentless competition to be the first person to identify a pattern that stimulates others to try to refute it. Science is remarkably competitive, and this completion leads to good outcomes. Robust conclusions survive repeated challenges and become the accepted wisdom.

As a citizen I believe that we should base many societal decisions on the best available data and analyses. I think and have written about the importance of evidence-based decision making in many disciplines, including governance and public policy. Yet it's an uphill slog.

Evidence-based decision making is making some inroads into disciplines where tradition, ego and opinion have long been relied upon for making the right decision. Indeed, meta-analyses (systematic analyses of previous analyses) and evidence-based evaluations are now commonplace in both medicine and conservation biology, and we, the patients, and the environment are the clear winners of the application of this evidence-based approach.

Consequently it was with great confusion that when I looked at both the election markets (which is where people bet on their predictions about election outcomes) and predictive models like Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight blog and then listened to highly reputed pundits from across the political spectrum pontificate, I continually saw and heard different messages. Truly predictive, data-driven analyses reported a popular polarization in our country but have been consistently predicting the outcomes of the elections for months: Obama would be reelected, the Senate would keep its Democratic majority, the House would keep its Republican majority. Pundits, on the other hand, cherry-picked the data they wanted and created a series of expert opinions and scenarios, many of which were wrong.

This cherry-picking of data leads to bad predictions and bad policy, because data and their proper analysis really matter. The predictions for what became Superstorm Sandy were, sadly, spot-on. Indeed, even the predictions for Hurricane Irene were mostly correct: There was massive damage and flooding along the East Coast, people and property were harmed and our insurance rates have gone up in response to this disaster.

Therefore I ask: Why do we still trust pundits who tell us that the evidence for climate change is weak, that environmental regulations are harmful and that we should not change our policy or lifestyles because of weak or insufficient evidence?

The evidence for human-induced climate change is overwhelming. The current arguments among scientists are over how much the global temperature will rise (the numbers look horrible), how fast the rise will be (it could be much faster than we thought a few years ago) and what really will happen. Of course, these predictions are better for the immediate future and become less robust as we look far ahead. However, we know that heat waves and droughts like those seen during the summer of 2012 will become more common. We know that this will increase the price of food and cause more heat-related deaths. We also know that superstorms will become more common and that as sea level rises more and more, flooding will hit places that have never before been flooded.

There is active interest in refining these models, and many people continue to collect data and tune their models to better predict the future over the next decades and century. Given this overwhelming scientific consensus, and given our recent peek into what the future will look like (hot and stormy), isn't it time for evidence-based policy to be implemented to do our best to mitigate some of these forecast catastrophes?

Yet, much to my disgust, the topic of climate change, or environmental issues more broadly, never really surfaced during this election cycle, despite the fact that these are some of the biggest threats to both the well-being of Americans and our national security. I write this as nearly 1 million people are still without power in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy and a cold, snowy nor'easter is bearing down on the region.

The military knows that climate change is a huge threat and is working hard to develop renewable sources of energy and plan for huge refugee crises and enhanced competition for arable land, water and fuel. The insurance companies know this and are raising rates. Why don't our elected representatives know this? And, if they do know this, why are they not acting?

We are a country divided, but we must unite to manage the environmental problems that unite us all. The divisiveness of this last election must be put aside, and fast. Our future and the future of our children depend upon it.

We must work together, using the best scientific evidence and our shared moral ground (for nobody really wants an apocalyptic future for their children or grandchildren) to immediately cut carbon production and consumption; to immediately support the creation of new green jobs that will revolutionize our power grids and enhance our energy independence; to immediately view our consumption as a vice, not a virtue; to strengthen environmental legislation to ensure clean water and clean air and prevent our planet from becoming toxified; and to work together to mend our social relationships so shattered during this past election.

Dinner parties can be part of this, but we must go far beyond them and make sure that our politicians know that we expect them to do better. We must work together to demand that political decisions be based on evidence, not "expert opinion," for the fact that someone has the microphone doesn't mean that they are right, no matter how many times they repeat it! The pundits taught us all a very good lesson: Data matter.