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Charles Barkley: “Analytics Don’t Work”

I guess I can pack up my desk and go home. My career was just ended by none other than basketball legend Charles Barkley, who dealt a death blow to the burgeoning analytics industry with this damning assessment:

It starts with Charles calling Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey "one of those idiots who believes in analytics." And it’s all downhill from there.

Joking aside, I think what’s telling about Charles’ diatribe is his emphasis on the difference between human experience (playing sports) and an abstraction of it (analytics). Charles isn’t alone here: There has always been a reaction to an over-reliance on analytics at the expense of human experience.

FICO experienced this way back in the 1960s, when founders Bill Fair and Earl Isaac would waltz into a meeting with bank risk managers and tell them that they weren’t making good enough decisions. The people charged with evaluating a credit applicant’s risk felt they were being told that they weren’t smart enough to do the job properly. (This is one reason why credit scoring took years to get off the ground.)

Deep down, people trust in human experience much more than they trust in number-crunching. We believe that people with the right experience can spot a good basketball player, or a good credit risk.

We also have a fundamental dislike of being analyzed. We believe we stand a better chance with a human “judge,” who might understand our complex nature, than with an algorithm that can’t look us in the eye.

As we get to grips with the phenomenon I call the Internet of People, these beliefs will drive the debate. Those of us in the analytics trade — should it survive Charles Barkley’s broadside — ignore these personal feelings at our peril.

We need to explain how analytics complements human decisions, rather than replaces them. Analytics amplifies human judgment, allowing  it to operate at a massive scale, while correcting some of the faults, such as people’s tendency to rush to judgment from a tiny sample of data. And being analyzed can help us identify ways to improve ourselves and enrich our human experience, as is demonstrated by the craze for health apps and wearables.

There’s just one question that still nags at me from Barkley’s comments: What is a prom?

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