Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

You Neanderthal…What a Relief!

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Myths, misinformation and disinformation are all around us. Being able to sort through and correctly determine which “facts” are mistaken and which real would be a very useful ability. Some are better at it than others, or at least believe they are, but even those who believe they are pretty good at living an evidence-based life cannot possibly have enough knowledge or time to correctly sort through all of it.

Many day-to-day decisions including personal, business, political and sociological ones are based on erroneous yet generally accepted information and beliefs, bias and bigotry on the part of the decision maker, political expediency, or purposely deceptive bits of available/provided information. Other decisions are made in blissful ignorance of the facts, flawed analyses due to information overload or willful disregard of evidence.

Much of this behavior and decision-making skill, or lack thereof, occurs simply because we are all human, with all the limitations that are implied by being imperfect creatures. One saving grace is that many decisions we make do not have a clearly right or wrong answer but multiple pathways to multiply acceptable, if not optimal outcomes. Decision-making is an imperfect art but luckily many imperfect decisions may lead to imperfect but somewhat acceptable outcomes. Sometimes that is true, but there are times when imperfect decisions have tremendously negative impacts.

I have been going to the same dentist now for 22 years. I visited her just a few weeks ago for a cleaning and checkup and as it turned out to replace a filling she had done from 1991 that had deteriorated. Not the filling itself, she had to tell me, the filling itself was fine. It was the tooth around the filling that had deteriorated.

She is a really great dentist, and she makes exquisite jewelry as a hobby. (She once offered to put a row of diamonds across my front teeth. I declined the offer as it just did not fit my public persona). She takes great pride in her work, as she should, and in some respects I feel like I am borrowing the fillings that she puts into my mouth. They are her fine works of art that she is willing to loan me, as long as I agree to take care of them. And if I don’t, I run the risk of her looking for me and ripping all of them out. Now there is a motivator to get you to floss.

I had to tell my dentist on the last visit when we figured out how long that filling had been in, that when I first started as a patient of hers, I was young and healthy, I was in good shape. I said to her, “I used to be young. Look what you have done to me, the longer I see you the worse the situation. My hair has turned gray, my body has deteriorated, I have gained weight and I have aged.” Well of course she took great umbrage at that, but agreed that there might be something to it, since when I started as a patient of hers she was young as well. So something about our patient/dentist relationship has aged both of us. And you know what? The same affliction, with some variation, occurs to every patient who has seen their dentist for a long period of time. Maybe it is something in the mouthwash or is it my constantly complaining about the dull rusty needles she uses for injecting and numbing out my teeth and gums. Anyway, she offers to distribute some of my books to her other patients who are in the business world and who might be able to make use of my services, so we have a pretty good relationship.

Is this data-based decision-making? Correlation is causation, right? Absurd, right? I could point out decision after decision that if you stripped it down to its essence would be based on similar logic, claiming to be data-based, without identifying the real root cause of the issues. If I believed that logic, I might then change dentists, looking for one who would not cause me to age over the years.

In “50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology” Steven Lynn and co-authors document some commonly held beliefs that have been “debunked by lots of high-quality research” (Wiley- Blackwell 2010). The list includes:

  • Humans use just ten percent of their brains – 59% of college graduates got that wrong. We actually use all of our brains, the cynic in me says that some just don’t use it very well
  • Criminal profiling helps solves crimes – a 2007 meta-analysis which cuts across a quantity of published studies, showed that professional profilers fared just about the same as laypeople in describing a criminal’s characteristics (so much for fictional TV shows as sources of information)
  • Stress causes ulcers – it is actually a bacteria, but when an ulcer is present the stress may make it worse
  • You can’t change highly heritable traits – environment does in fact play an important role on how inherited traits can be expressed
  • Only deeply depressed people commit suicide – 13-41% of those who commit suicide would meet the criteria for major depression, not exactly an overwhelming majority. Substance abuse, social phobia, gender identity disorder and borderline personality disorder accounts for many suicides. Generally anyone who expresses pervasive helplessness might be at risk.

I used to be depressed (not suicidal) about Neanderthals and by extension about us humans. If you recall, Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis appeared on the scene in Europe, Western Asia and the Middle East about 130,000 years ago and about 30,000 years ago they vanished. Much speculation has gone on regarding what had happened to them. Were they genetically less fit than Homo Sapiens Sapiens (us) and hence just died out over time? Were they competing for the same resources as Homo Sapiens Sapiens albeit less successfully? Did we as a species war with the Neanderthals and kill them off, killing off our closest relatives, another form of intelligent life? Unfortunately that last scenario seemed all too likely given our history and I have always felt somewhat depressed about the notion that Homo Sapiens Sapiens may have killed off the Neanderthals, even though I was not directly responsible.

Strong evidence-based science has stepped into the speculative breach and now there is good news. A research study that examined the DNA of Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens found a 1-4% overlap indicating that either there was some interbreeding between the two sub-species over a long period of time, or that there was substantial interbreeding occurring over a fairly short duration. So while there may have been conflict between Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens (speculation which archeological evidence does not support, but is supportive of the notion that they lived side by side), there is now evidence that there was mating going on.

We did not necessarily kill them off; we may have simply bred with them incorporating their gene pool into our own. I am so relieved, as I was carrying around this species level guilt associated with being responsible for their extinction. So now if you call someone a bone-head it is indeed legitimate, but you would likely have to apply that label to yourself as well. (Neanderthals are noted for having cranium sizes roughly equal to our own, about 6 feet tall, but were likely much stronger than us, being heavily built with robust bone structures).

Archeologists indicated little surprise at the results since they have described skeletons from Europe that contained characteristics of both Homo Sapiens Sapiens and Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis, which they took as a sign of interbreeding. Solid scientific research across multiple disciplines, using multiple methodologies arriving at similar conclusions lend greater credence to the conclusion and hence better decisions.

More and more gets written each day about the use of data in decision-making. I am a big supporter of fact-based or evidence-based decisions, and all of my work strives to take an evidence or data-based approach to decision-making. But just because you are using data doesn’t negate the need for appropriate data collection design, analysis and interpretation. It can be just as easy to come to an erroneous data-based decision based on flawed methodology, design, analysis or interpretation.

Many techniques exist that can be used to help ensure better data-based or evidence-based decisions. Look for some suggestions coming here in the near future.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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