SQLServerCentral Editorial

Realities of Predictive Analysis


Or for short, “Why you have to play the game”

“Don't tell me the odds”, cried out Han Solo just before doing something that seemed impossible. How on Coruscant did he do that? Well, as a certain director said about a certain floating door in a galaxy we all call home. ”It was in the script.”

The real world has no script

Are you surprised when there’s a 10% chance of rain and you get drenched leaving work? Or watching a sports ball game using super fancy stats where a player scores, even though they only were given a .7 % chance of that occurring during the match? What if that player scored on a rainy day where there was 0% chance of precipitation and was given a 0% likelihood of scoring that day. Should their score even count?

Of course it should and does, but how could the predictive analysis get it so wrong? For the clear reason that the only thing you can predict with 100% accuracy is the past. And to add to that argument, most people can’t even agree on exactly what happened in the past. (If you want some fun, watch or read a few documentaries on the same subject written by different people.)

As we get better and better with stats and sensors, we absolutely get better at predicting the future. Weather forecasts are far more dependable than they were even a few years ago. Predicting the value of stocks, markets, etc. is easier than ever. Game winners are typically picked before the game with startling accuracy. Yet there are always surprises. Why is this?

You have to play the game

I will admit, I tried doing some reading on this subject. I read (over) this article, and this one, and when I got here, I had learned one thing: there is a lot of math involved. But one thing they all tended to say is this: “we don’t have enough data”.

There are two general things I have noticed. Because we will never have enough sensors to monitor everything, there is no way we ever get enough data to know exactly what happens next. Especially not being able to know what is in the hearts and minds of human beings. Humans do things sometimes that seem supernatural. A catch that looked over their heads and already in the goal, “wait, they got that!?! The GOT THAT!” These same players also make mistakes they shouldn’t. Sometimes a top caliber player is gently handed a ball on the final play and all they had to do to win the game was not drop the ball. Any other player on the field, or even any person watching them from the stands, would not have failed to hold on to the ball. But this person did.

Why? If you could have answered that question before it happened, you would be rich beyond belief. Problem is that the player may have had a hand spasm. Or a sneeze coming on. Or to take it to another place altogether, the player may have been thinking “Yes, we are going to win right here! I am so great!” and took their eye off the most important thing (the ball, you probably guessed that!) It is also possible that as the play started, they got a little hungry… for pie.

“I want pie after the game. Maybe rhubarb. What the heck is rhubarb? It looks like celery, but they put it in sweets on Bake Off. I mean it is freaking purple. Is it purple? I think it is a bit more red. And was Paul Hollywood’s last name really Hollywood growing up? Wonder what his parents names are?” Etc.

Before you careen yourself off thinking about that last question and don’t finish reading my editorial. Yes, it apparently was.

What does this mean for me?

In my years supporting marketers, I was always amazed at how well you could predict what a group of people would do as a whole. Ask in the right way, and an expected percentage of people would typically answer positively. Pre-computers, they just knew to do the same thing because it worked before. Over time, as a method stopped working, they tweaked the formula and tried to adjust until they got the results they wanted.

On a large scale, it was easy to predict that a campaign would work. But predicting existing how ONE customer would behave on that one day you solicited from them? No way. They may have had a bad day. They may have needed work on their chimney that day (don’t try to sell me something today, by the way). Or they may have really hated your company for some random reason that you could not predict without a sensor in their brain (or at least access to everything they saw on TV and Social Media that month.)

So don’t let the stats tell you what you can and cannot do

Let them guide you, and help you understand your strengths and weaknesses, because that is what they are, a guide. A prediction that if you behave like you did last time, this is what will happen. There will never be a time when life is so programmed that statistics can predict that you will buy a product no matter what the salesperson says, no matter how great (or not so great) the product. Or that you are going to win the game no matter what, so why not just sit on the bench today and take a load off. At least not until all the people are replaced by robots... but that isn't predicted to happen for a while.

Stats do a great job of predicting the future because they have knowledge of the past, when you were likely working your hardest. They are not magic!



You rated this post out of 5. Change rating




You rated this post out of 5. Change rating