Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Bad data leads to bad conclusions

I've been trying to avoid too much digital ink spilled over current internal Southern Baptist Convention goings-on.  That's for several reasons.  One is that I'm not spending near as much time on that as on other issues in life.  Why?  Because I doubt that anything I say about the SBC influences anyone, but I have a family to lead, a church to minister to, and a digital audience that probably just doesn't care.

However, something I read in Baptist Press yesterday caught my attention.  For those of you that don't know it, we Southern Baptists decided last year that, perhaps, we needed to examine how we operate to see if there are better ways to work together to allow more of the funds we put into missions to actually be used…..to spread the Gospel.  So, we took a very Baptist approach to the problem: we appointed a committee to examine it.  Well, we approved a committee.  They were then appointed by the SBC President.

Well, the committee just released it's preliminary findings, and made some recommendations to make major changes in the way our North American Missions are operated.  The plan is to defund a large portion of how those missions are operated, and restructure the whole program.  It was based on data that showed that we were paying for more missionaries in the area that is commonly known as the "South" than in the rest of the US and Canada.  This was provided to the North American Mission Board last summer, and the committee used this data to recommend major changes.

There's just one problem here.  The data's inaccurate.  Well, not just slightly inaccurate.  Apparently, the initial figure that 2 out of 3 NAMB missionaries are in the South, and that 2/3's of the money is spent in the South, was close to reversed.  75% of the money, and 53% of the missionaries are out of the South.  Now, whether or not that's adequate is a whole different question.

It is, however, hardly the problem that was attempting to be solved.  Why?

It is because bad data will almost certainly lead to bad conclusions.

This is why decision making for us is so hard.  We often act on bad data, and therefore make bad decisions.  Many divorces happen because bad data is brought to the decision to marry in the first place.  Job dissatisfaction comes because bad data caused us to take the wrong job.  Churches aren't pleased when they find the hidden issues in a pastor's past.  Bad data.  Companies fail because of missing the point on the information.

However, it's not always possible to get the best, complete data before you make a decision.  Should you try?  Certainly.  I'm not sure how the elite brain trust that was evaluating the SBC didn't double-check the numbers.  Certainly if they read this, they'd fry me if I had a misplaced comma, much less an error of that magnitude.  But we don't know all about everyone or everything.  Ann and I are currently evaluating seminary possibilities.  We'll make the best decision we can, and then we'll go from there.

For the believer in Christ, the first point is to make sure we seek God's direction, since He knows what we don't.

This should be obvious, but it's not.  And it's not always easy, because the Lord God Almighty still doesn't send personal emails from Himself.  He sends them sometimes through people, but then we question whether He prompted it or just people's own thoughts.

Extremely important is how we handle learning that our data was wrong and our conclusions were incorrect.

Many conclusions can be adjusted.  Right now, our conclusion is that I'll have time (and we'll have money) for me to attend seminary by distance.  If we discover that it's going to be twice as expensive or twice as time-consuming, we'll revisit the decision.  I once took a job believing I could do it.  I failed, utterly.  (I was a salesman. Who sold nothing.)

When churches or businesses begin to make decisions based on data that is wrong, they need to re-examine if they're still on the right track.  Same thing with SBC committees.

Some decisions can take a while to get out of….you can't just bail out on a job without a new one (or some savings)! If you vote in a politician based on data that says he's good, and he's not, you've got to wait for the next election and then vote them out!

Some decisions you have to live with.  Your marriage isn't what you wanted, but you're committed to it.  You've realized, now, that you don't really like kids.  Well, you can't eat them, so you've got to feed them, raise them right, and get them on their way.  Even if you have to get help because you know you can't handle it after all.

The one thing you cannot do is ignore that the data changed.

You still have to reconsider your conclusions, you still need to contemplate what has changed.

You may be bound by your word to the conclusion.  You may be bound by contract or by law.  You may simply be so emotionally vested that you won't change your mind under any circumstances.

Yet, if you doggedly refuse to even reconsider, you are bound for trouble.  If your conclusions are intended to lead others, your integrity is at stake.  If your conclusions are just about your own life, your strength to stick with them is at stake.

Any direction you look, if it's an important enough to decision, it's important enough to get it right.  Even if you have to do it twice.



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