Does data science give you butterflies? Don’t get carried away

David Reed, director of research and editor-in-chief, DataIQ

Boasting about backroom abilities never used to be a go-to activity for brands. When you want to trigger feelings about your product, explaining the rational way it is created is not the way to go. That’s why credit card issuers in the past tended to focus on the thrill of travel, buying perfume or dining out.

All that has changed. MBNA now proudly states in its TV ads that “we’re not interested in all the exciting things you can buy”. Instead, it describes the fact that, “we’re your experts. Your number nerds. Your payment ninjas.” It couldn’t be clearer that the reason to get one of its cards is because it does all the backroom things well.

So why this change in emphasis? Because data is sexy. The message that you know what you are doing when it comes to number-crunching is reassuring. If you are a financial product and want to build customer confidence, especially after the biggest global financial crisis in history, this is a good way to go.

Other brands have noticed, too. But while they may have data and science at their heart in the same way, sometimes their advertising goes too far. Take eHarmony. It uses a properly-researched approach to matching people based on 29 dimensions of compatability. If you are a singleton looking for a mate, that might give you confidence that your hit rate will be higher if you use its dating services.

But then it goes one step too far by using the line, “Decode the mystery of chemistry and compatibility to find someone right for you!” Do you see the problem? While an online personality profile can accurately capture those personality traits, eHarmony does not ask its members to provide a mouth swab. So chemistry is definitely not part of the scientific brains it can bring to bear.

Compatability between two humans may well be built on shared interests, but it also relies on physical chemistry - the cloud of pheremones which are released when a woman reaches up to sweep her hair back, for example, or a man exudes a slight sheen as his heart rate rises. Or the exchange of DNA that takes place in that first kiss which tells them whether they genuinely match. All of that has to happen in person, not via a questionnaire.

This confusion between psychology, mathematics, biology and chemistry is not uncommon. As a term, science is a catch-all, but talk to any scientist and they will quickly explain their specific field of speciality. The same is true of data science - and the same blurring of the lines is taking place here. Coding is not modelling and vice-versa. It is as rare for one person to do both as it is for a psychologist to create chemical formulae.

If you are looking at data science as a potential new asset in your business, it is important to bear this in mind. What you need are number nerds. But you also need some engineers, too. Don’t think that any one individual - or a group with the same shared skills - will give you what you want, any more than you can find the love of your life just by ticking boxes online.

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Director of research and editor-in-chief, DataIQ
An expert commentator on all things data, David has been editor of DataIQ since its inception in 2011.