An illustration of two opposing people

Evidence (De)Based

Almost 10 years ago, the Higgs Boson “God Particle” was discovered at CERN in Geneva. It was a monumental scientific discovery reverberating around the world almost 50 years after Peter Higgs first posited the existence of the particle in two papers he wrote in 1964. (Interestingly, one of the papers was refused for publication by CERN at the time for being “of no obvious relevance to physics.”) It took 10 years for people to realize that Higgs’ paper might actually offer an answer to the Universe’s building blocks and another 40 years to prove the particle actually existed.

Coincidentally, a few months before the Higgs discovery, I was working on a branding project for UCSB Physics. One of UCSB’s Physics professors was a team leader at CERN and subsequently co-announced the discovery. As part of the brand research, I had a conversation with the then-department chair and he said something I found very illuminating. “If we discover the Higgs Boson, it will change everything we know about the universe.” What I found interesting about that comment, is it meant that one scientific certainty was being exchanged for another. Which is to say that now a whole new bunch of people would get told they were wrong by people who were newly “right.” The physicists’ conviction in their certitude would essentially remain constant even though “everything had changed.”

The beginnings of the Universe rested on one conclusion and then it rested on another. Each “truth” was backed by mountains of evidence. If evidence can be incomplete, undiscovered or alternatively interpreted in physics, a land of zeros and ones, how much more so in the Byzantine complexity and often non-conformity of human behavior?

The NFL draft recently concluded. What I found particularly engrossing to read over those days were several articles discussing how often teams have bet on players that do not pan out. It happens a lot. Teams often vastly overpay for perceived talent that just does not emerge in the professional arena. Or, in the case of Tom Brady (drafted #199th), they completely miss out on a future “best-ever.”

And this is particularly intriguing (or frustrating) because NFL teams have plenty of opportunity to gauge their top prospects before drafting them. Scouts watch them play in person; hours upon hours of film are pored over. Then the NFL combine puts players through an observed, standardized workout and comparable stats are compiled for teams to parse. Yet it has been well proven that the chance of one player in the draft being better than the next one drafted at the same position is, historically, no better than a coin toss.

There are reams of articles written on this and why so much money gets wasted on poor decisions by teams that are eager to make good decisions, so many that I will not specifically cover any of it here. (But read this to get an idea of the kind of biases that can sneak into data analysis.) The crucial point is this: data and “evidence” are very important tools, but if the wrong conclusions are drawn, or if one data set is assumed to map directly to a different scenario then they can just as easily accelerate and weaponize a poor decision string.

Which, of course leads me to Bernie Sanders. Ever noticed that no-one on the other side of the political spectrum seems to hate him? And yet many of the same people apoplectically despise Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? I don’t mean that no-one disagrees with Bernie, I mean that he does not engender smoke-from-ears opprobrium, whereas AOC does. Even if we assign some of this difference to a male/female paradigm, I think more of it comes down to the way they deliver their message. Bernie rarely seems to be criticizing people for their decisions but just sticks to what he sees would benefit those Americans who don’t drive Bugattis. AOC is a lot more comfortable with oppositional conflict. Many conservatives see Bernie as telling them what he fervently believes vs. AOC telling them why she is right. Which, of course, means that anyone with opposing beliefs is wrong. People, as a rule, don’t care to be on the sharp end of that construct.

Physician, Heal Thyself (First)

As we deal with what seem like existential wave-sets coming at us, (fentanyl, suicide, climate-change, Covid) conversations about behavior and prevention need to take similar paradigms into consideration. It is important to remember that the information we may be trying to deliver and behavior we are trying to encourage may have been actively (though usually unconsciously) avoided, perhaps for many years. We may be challenging a dynamic and identity that has been worked on industriously and that has a defense mechanism built up around it. If we do not enter the conversation correctly, (either personally or via campaigns) we risk causing a hardening of habits and behavior. We may leave people further entrenched. If we present people with a choice that feels like “admit you are wrong, a loser, a terrible parent, etc. and thus should do A” we set up a dynamic where even considering following the proposed course of action involves essentially first admitting that they are wrong, a loser, etc... That creates a bar too tall for many people to jump over. The other, reflexively more attractive option they have is ignoring all of that and remaining in the cocoon of denial that they have woven so they can nestle in their comfort zone – potentially a very ill-advised, unproductive comfort zone but very real to them. And the easiest way to do that is for them to see you as accusatory, an enemy, out to destroy their way of life. Once, in their eyes, you have dug your way into that hole, it can be very difficult to climb out.

Bernie is an admitted socialist, yet people don’t hate him. AOC is a progressive Democrat and many people loathe her. Bernie does not waver in his beliefs, but people can see and hear them without feeling that they themselves are being pilloried and criticized. It is a message delivered with the kernel of love still visibly intact. You just don’t get the idea that Bernie dislikes any group. (Not talking to you here, billionaires.)

Whether it is being open to the fact that there may be more scientific discoveries to make and it is therefore a little presumptuous to tell people they are absolutely wrong, or asking a few more questions of data and realizing that people are not machines; if, at the end of the day, you are hoping to be heard and effect change in behavior, it must first start with making a connection.

If people stop listening to you, because they feel you have insulted them, targeted them, looked down on them or positioned them as the enemy, no amount of data or evidence is subsequently going to move them. That is now YOUR data and YOUR evidence, not theirs.

So, what do we do? Well, I hope there is no way to put 25 years of experience into a couple of paragraphs or I have wasted a lot of my time in this life, but here are a few simple thoughts as an opener.

  1. Find common ground. No-one wants the world to end or people to die of overdoses (largely). Find all the ways you are on the same side of the table before discussing any ways you are not.
  2. Work to understand what underlies people’s beliefs. Did God tell them? Was a loved one a victim? Is that the way they believe “their people” do things? If people feel that their beliefs require a certain worldview you need to speak to them in a way that respects and understands the foundation of their beliefs.
  3. The word “prevention” comes with a lot of baggage. Prevention almost sounds un-American. I like to think we are helping people find a way to give themselves permission to try a new path. The amount of love in your communication will be the key to that door.
  4. As I have said in many places in the Relational Intersect, it is not what you think of me or what I think of you that causes the worst problems in our communications, it is what I think you think of me and what you think I think of you. Again, true love and respect in communications helps here. Let people see that you are not castigating or judging them. The easiest way to do that is by it being true.
  5. Tell people what you believe without telling them that they have to believe it also. Tie it back to what you have agreed are common beliefs. If it makes sense, you will have angled a behavioral trim-tab. Give it time. Which leads to…
  6. Be consistent. Which does not mean be intransigent. How does it feel to be on the receiving end of your communications? If it is consistently respectful, caring, listening and rests on common beliefs, in time it can turn a ship around.

Analyzing, interpreting and mapping data and evidence are extremely important tools to both inform and direct conversations, but if they are not used in conjunction with human dynamics and a love for your audience, you risk sowing seeds onto concrete; nothing good will grow there.

– Simon Dixon

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