Be Skeptical of Data


Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership

Be Skeptical of Data


Being skeptical of assertions made by others has served me well a majority of the time. I do my best to be polite, find out the knowledge base the person or group has, the credentials they possess in the way of expertise and then decide if I need to investigate further or if I can take them at their word.

I expect others to do the same concerning my assertions. After all, I like anyone else, should be willing to reveal my sources of information. Am I sharing anecdotal data from my personal experience? Am I quoting a known expert in a particular field? Am I using data from a reliable source, or am I quoting an unknown internet blog?

Especially in today’s environment, I am finding more people willing to accept whatever a person in their “tribe” has to say regardless of that person’s expertise in the matter. The attitude of only taking statements from my crowd while discounting or rejecting assertions from others extends to all disciplines—science, religion, human health, and politics, to name a few.


I like to share leadership articles and posts with those who follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter. It’s taken some effort, but I now have a cadre of thought leaders that I can confidently share with others. I try to read the articles before sharing, but sometimes, I’m not able to do so and make a deadline. With these carefully selected thought leaders, I am confident that if I have time only to skim the article to make sure I know what it’s about, I can share without being embarrassed about a value or concept.

I also know that if the article takes on a stand different than my own, the author will present a well thought out case with a logical argument. I often forward pieces that have a view different than my own because I believe people should know about as many differing opinions as possible, then make up their minds.


As I write this post, there are comments from across the political spectrum regarding data from the COVID-19 testing program. When I ask a few questions of people on either side of the argument, it is usually clear that they are not listening to experts, but to tribe members.

“Figures don’t lie, but liars do figure.”
Anonymous according to Quote Investigator

What we see in the data is most often what we want to see. I have been astounded when without first expressing my opinion, I ask someone else to look at the data and tell me what, if anything, the see. I am likely to get corroboration of the significant trend the data is showing. However, I will frequently get differing reasons for that trend being present.

If I provide additional data that perhaps refutes the explanation given for the trend, that data is often not accepted. Instead, the person offers excuses for why that data isn’t correct. I find all this to be interesting, and I suspect that I play that same game at times. Confirmation bias is alive and well in all of us.

Bottom Line

I expend much energy trying to make sure I’m not falling prey to confirmation bias. I am learning to be as skeptical of my interpretation of data, or acceptance of tribal member assertions as I want others to be. I am also working hard to understand the assumptions I make and check that they are reasonable.

For some things, like the selection of thought leaders, I hope to put the effort in one time and be able to take advantage of that effort going forward. Even that, however, requires revisiting to make sure that I am not sticking with out-dated thought leaders. Things change. People usually lag behind the changes.

As business leaders, what do we see in the data around the pandemic? Are we skeptical of the data? If so, on what do we base that—tribal knowledge, expert opinion? If we believe the data, what do we see is the trend? Is the data complete? Accurate? Regardless of our thoughts on the pandemic (some people think the trends are hyped because of the political climate), what decisions will we make based on our beliefs? Hopefully, we are making the right decision based on the best scientific data we can gather. As Hal Harvey said, “Respect science, respect nature, respect each other.”