Two Cautionary Data Tales

Friday, June 29, 2012


Data doesn’t always expose and explain, it can also lead us astray. OTM producer Jamie York looks at two time 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 1970’s.  And 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.


Joe Flood, Michael Lewis, Scott Patterson and Dennis Smith

Hosted by:

Jamie York

Comments [4]

robert rusnak from iindonesia

working in an international school in jakarta, indonesia. interesting articles here. thank you.

Aug. 21 2012 07:39 PM
Scott from Havre de Grace, MD

Minor correction
The story states that the RAND Corporation's roots are in a WWII project of the Air Force. The Air Force did not exist as a separate service branch until 1947.

During WWII, what eventually became the Air Force would have been either the Army Air Corps or the Army Air Forces.

Jul. 11 2012 10:08 AM
Peg from SD from Custer, SD

Excellent program! You mentioned that cultural context can influence the interpretation of data. This is not the only wrench that can throw off analysis of data. The conclusions one draws are also dependent on what question is being asked and specifically what data is being mined for the answer. I invite you to check out two podcasts hosted by Russ Roberts on the Econtalk ( web site: One features Richard Burkhauser who discusses the use of data to provide evidence for the current concern over the rapid (or not so rapid) growth of income inequality in our country. The other features Gary Taubes who examined the research on the link (or lack thereof) between fat consumption and heart disease. (Interestingly, as I write this, Gary Taubes is being interviewed on "Talk of the Nation". Not sure if he will bring up the same issues discussed in the podcast. I expect the podcast will augment his recent op-ed.) Thanks for a great show!

Jul. 03 2012 02:49 PM
Sharon Liu from Detroit, MI

Because I found the story (the whole data series) interesting, and wanted to know if there are efforts to understand such important errors in data analyses, I googled "Rand study Bronx fires." To my surprise, the 5th item google listed is

I could not find a date as to when O'Hagan's daughter posted her findings, refuting Flood's assertions and conclusions. And while the writing seems, to me, carefully documented, citations to references (listed in the Appendix) were missing. But in any case, I thought I would bring it to some attention here. I guess it just re-affirms the message from On The Media: "Trust no one."

Jul. 01 2012 07:40 PM

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