ReachOut: The Siren Song Of Data

ReachOut: The Siren Song Of Data from United Farmers Cooperative on Vimeo.

Mike Zwingman

Mike Zwingman

Whatever we might say about lies, damn lies, and statistics, anyone engaged in the sciences or business (which would be all of us reading—and writing—this article) uses data to inform and guide decision making.  The products that you’re buying, the hybrids that you’re planting—you haven’t chosen these on a whim or shady suggestion from a shyster.  You’ve chosen them because of the data behind them—the numbers that prove (or “prove”) higher yields and better performance.  And most of the recommendations that I make here and elsewhere in my job, I back up with data as evidence and justification of my position.

The rub is that you’re not growing data in your fields.  You’re growing plants.

We all share at least a mild distrust for data.  It’s easily misrepresented and we’re inundated daily by statistics that may or may not be true.  Our love of data and its kin (stats, probabilities, trends, and other nerdisms) also isn’t why you got into farming.  You’re a grower because you like to grow—to be outside and drive big machines and play in the dirt with your family and neighbors.

That’s an instinct to trust.


Data has its place.  It does help us make decisions and organize the world in useful ways.  We use it to confirm that things are working (or not) and to analyze problems when they occur.  But whatever the data, it still has to pass the eye test.  Data is always just a number (or a whole bunch of numbers) but you still need to see how it plays in your field to make it real, to get the whole story, to witness the unmeasurables and x-factors that numbers just can’t capture or convey.

Usain Bolt ran the 100 m at the 2012 Olympics in 9.63 seconds.  Now, you might read that piece of data and think, “Hey, that’s one quick dude.”  But did you see that race?  The experience of seeing that “one quick dude” with your own eyes is an infinitely more awesome experience than simply accepting the data point that was his time because seeing the race gives you the full text of the story: the spectacle of his swagger,  his brief lean into the finish, the long strides of an Olympic record.  Watching it is more than just an experience: it’s a lesson.

Header1As you begin planning for next season, I encourage you to experience the real thing.  Take a few acres (or more than a few) and watch as data becomes real in your fields, and take the opportunity to learn something.  If you’re a bit hesitant to exercise the experiment yourself, look to someone trusted and local who is trying it themselves.  (Hint: I mean your FSA and UFC—we have really cool test plots.)  The benefits of seeing the proof in the pudding simply can’t be overstated:

  • You’ll gain faith in the products you’ve chosen.
  • You’ll learn the how, the what, and the why of the data—instead of catching the stories of your products and hybrids only at their very ends, you’ll be able to see it all the way along and in the process will learn how things work.
  • You’ll learn the gritty details of why something works (or not).
  • You’ll replace that mild mistrust of data with solid belief because you’ll have seen it with your own two eyes.

When your daughter tells you just how nice her new boyfriend is, you meet the kid and size him up yourself.  When the weatherman says it will rain today, you stick your head outdoors to look for clouds.  When your brother-in-law says he’ll get those tools you loaned him back to you tomorrow, you say you’ll believe it when you see it.

Which is exactly right.  Believing is just a little seeing away.