Two Cautionary Data Tales

Friday, May 13, 2011


Data doesn’t always expose and explain; it can also lead us astray. OTM producer Jamie York looks at two times in the recent past when an overreliance on data has had disastrous consequences. Joe Flood, author of The Fires and Dennis Smith, author and veteran firefighter, tell the story of the RAND Corporation and the fires in the Bronx in the 1970s. Scott Patterson, author of The Quants and Michael Lewis, author of The Big Short, explain how math and science whiz kids nearly destroyed Wall Street.

Comments [11]

Philip Prindeville from Portland, OR

"Fresh off their success in World War II, this group of whiz kids created the RAND Corporation, and by the late 1950s, RAND’s approach, apolitical, data-driven, was revolutionizing business and public policy."

It's well-known that Kennedy and McNamara tried to fight the Vietnam war by throwing efficiency experts at it, and ignoring the intelligence coming back from commanders in the field... yeah, we all know how well that went.

May. 29 2011 02:08 PM
Ian Zukawski

What is the name of the "do the math" rap that plays just before the last segment? I've been searching for it all over but could not find it anywhere. Please tell me!!!!

May. 26 2011 09:49 PM
Peter Kolesar from New York City

Shame on you, 'On the Media.' I have long been a listener, but your program supporting the Joe Flood thesis that misuse of data burned down the South Bronx is completely at variance to the facts which were readily available to you. I was one of researchers who developed the models that Flood critiqued -- they have been validated over time, and are still in use today.

On the Media wanted a 'man bites dog story' and wrote such -- the truth is less exciting. On the Media itself has be come a victim of the need to feed the 24 hour news monster.

Peter Kolesar, Professor Emeritus, Columbia University

May. 23 2011 09:02 AM
Arthur Swersey from New Haven, CT

Jamie York interviewed me for an hour in his preparation for this piece. I was an original member of the RAND Fire Project and later became the project leader. In my interview I responded to Joe Flood’s charges. But Mr. York did not use any of it, and chose to tell only one side of the story.

Joe Flood's story that flawed models led to fire unit closings with catastrophic results is far from the truth. The models have been validated by others. After the cuts, which were City-wide, there were no increases in fire deaths, deaths per building fire, or the proportion of higher-alarm fires. If the cuts, made in response to a severe budget crisis, had a catastrophic impact on public safety, one would have expected to see increases in these statistics.

It's unfortunate that the fire piece was completely one-sided. Fairness is a basic principle of journalistic reporting. This lack of fairness and biased reporting reflects poorly not only on the On the Media program but on NPR as well.

May. 20 2011 03:19 PM
Catherine O'Hagan Wolfe from NY, NY

Joe Flood's analysis of the Bronx in the 60s and 70s contradicts the facts. His flawed reasoning and factual misstatements led him to conclusions unsupported by the historical record. Just one example is the significant variance between what he attributes to the RAND studies and what those studies actually say, all of which are publicly available. Listeners interested in an accurate account of that time should read the detailed criticism of Mr. Flood's book at

May. 19 2011 10:11 PM
emmanuel period2 from school

i think data is a good use for the human society. without data we would have total chaos. what they did with the timers was realy smart.

the fires kept setting off in the more poorer neighborhoods in new york. data can be one of the most dangerous things we have. we need to know how to mange our data way better then what were doing.

i feel like new york has all this money to make productions and big buildings but cant help out the more poor residents. the fires kept happening because the buildings were super old . they were more likely to to catch on fire. but thanks to the data plan the fire's were cut down.

in conclusion our data is priceless. without it were would we be. the more we come together as 1 we form a better unit. DATA is our friend that helps and hurts us .

May. 19 2011 09:41 PM
Michael O'Connell from Chicagoland

Loved the program. Thank you for this type of reporting.

May. 17 2011 01:05 PM

I loved Joe Flood's The Fires and cant wait for his next book!

May. 16 2011 08:26 PM
larry, dfh from Newark, DE

Doug, arson was very much on my mind when I heard the story. I've seen it in Manhattan before. And it doesn't have to be a huge, all-consuming fire, just enough so that the building structure becomes 'compromised'. Then it can be torn down. It happens to historical buildings where a developer can't legally expand the property, and it happens to buildings which can't be rented because the landlord has allowed too much deterioration. Blaming the phenomenon of crack parlors is nonsense. It would behoove the editor of a show on 'data' to find out the owners of these destroyed properties. Columbia University, Harry Helmsley? Maybe there is a pattern, maybe not so convenient an answer as those irresponsible homeless.

May. 16 2011 04:09 PM
Doug McMullen from Brooklyn NY

Good lord, speaking of elementary research... just looked up online and read Joe Flood's Post piece about the fires... his (controversial) hypothesis about the south bronx -- it wasn't arson, it was bad data... this was obviously the jumping off point of the radio piece... so i stand corrected (my underscored _nothing_ was going to come back to haunt me, it always does ;) ... but, my god, if the whole piece is about correcting "common knowledge" (arson in the 70s south bronx... and personally I'm not wholly convinced it's not the major cause) shouldn't the piece mention that common knowledge, if only to rebut it!?

May. 14 2011 08:59 AM
Doug McMullen from Brooklyn NY

Your producer Jamie York's synopsis of "why the bronx was burning" was utterly incorrect and the correct information so easily found I can only surmise that he just didn't bother to do any research and made it up off the top of his head. The fires, the 40 fires a day, of the 70s South Bronx had _nothing_ to do with old buildings, over-taxed wiring, and space heaters -- It was an ARSON crisis, caused by a tax and housing policy that left landlords with buildings which could neither be sold, nor rented -- but on which taxes were still owed. The landlord's solution: burn the buildings for insurance. If this is new to Mr. York, he might start with the wiki entry on the South Bronx, and go from there.

May. 14 2011 08:12 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.