Challenging the supremacy of evidence in driving decision making

The motivation for this post about making decisions comes from an article about dining decisions, but also about a frequent assertion of strength of evidence to inform a decision, often described as evidence-based decision-making.   The author of the article defends his earlier ratings of meals as good value cheap eats based on a price under $20 that delivers a unique and pleasurable dining experience.   He is defending abundant criticism that the meals he describes have comparable competitors that either provide larger portions or lower prices.

Evidence-based decision making gives me the impression that decisions should be based on evidence and only evidence.   For this post, I’m modeling the evidence-based decision-making concept around a popular-culture notion of how evidence is treated for court decisions, such as evidence that is allowed to be presented to a jury.    In court cases, the jury is tasked to come to their decision based only on the evidence that they are allowed to consider.   In particular, the jury is asked to be a passive participant rather than an active participant in the debate despite the fact that they are the ones making the decision.   I imagine the ideal of evidence-based decision-making is to task decision-makers to take the role of passive jurors to only consider the admissible evidence.

Applied to the simple concept of a dining decisions (either where to go, or how to rate the experience), evidence-based decision-making demands that we consider only the evidence.   For this discussion, let me focus on the concept of rating a meal as good value for low cost.   Certainly, there are many places that serve inexpensive meals.  The objective is to rate the ones among this set the deliver the best value.

The evidence is what can be measured or observed.  Evidence in the form of an observation has to be agreed upon by everyone.   Following the court-room analogy, observations that only some people accept is not admissible evidence.

For example the article describes competing versions of a bloody Mary.  The fact that a particular chef takes more time to prepare ingredients may not be admissible evidence if there is a good case to be made that his creation is comparable to what can be prepared using mass-produced ingredients.   Perhaps the author can taste the difference, but others may credibly disagree.   While taste is an observation, it is a uniquely individual experience that open to disagreement.   While everyone may readily recognize the difference between a bloody Mary and a glass of wine, they may not agreed on a detectable difference between the source of ingredients that result in comparable concoctions of a bloody Mary.   I nothing nothing about that drink but I imagine it has a range of recipes for different mouth-feels and spiciness, within a particular style it is probably hard to tell one from another especially given the variations that will occur with natural ingredients.

While taste differences are not acceptable as a commonly accepted form of evidence, price is easy to accept as evidence.   At some point, a bloody Mary is a bloody Mary and one that sells for $12 is arguably not cheap compared to $6 competitors.   Evidence leans heavily against deciding this to be a good value for a cheap price.

The article suggests some familiarity with the chef and perhaps that could be evidence if all patrons considered the chef to be a friend and actually enjoy watching him perform his efforts.   However, in many cases, the experience does not include immediate direct entertainment by a chef so this is not going to be admissible evidence.

Evidence-based decision making is to consider only the commonly agreed evidence.  For the bloody Mary recipe, it seems the only evidence is that it is an acceptable rendition of a certain style of bloody Mary and that it costs twice as much as its competitors.   This is not a good value for a cheap price, even though it may provide the author with a satisfying experience.

The other example concerns portion size of a pizza and the abundance of ingredients: “paying $17 for a margherita pizza might feel like a fleecing for a 13-inch pie topped with a tight-fisted amount of tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil.”  This quote pretty much exhausts all of the evidence that may be admissible in an argument.   The evidence of the price, the size, and the quantity seem to be beyond argument.  Although some may disagree with the term tight-fisted, they will probably admit that it is on the small side of comparable offerings.     Again the evidence weighs heavily in favor of a poor value for the high price even though the price is below the $20 threshold of cheap.

In both cases, the author makes the argument of the artistry behind the creation.   The ingredients are of rarer and more expensive quality and the preparation is more labor intensive.  But this is not part of the dining experience.  Diners sit at tables and the kitchen is typically hidden in the back.   What counts is what is delivered to the table.   Unless we can taste the difference and that difference is readily accepted as better than the alternative, then it is not evidence.

The author may enjoy the experience and the price is below $20.   Perhaps there are lots of people like the author.   The businesses are thriving with satisfied and returning customers.   But these are customers who are not seeking value in cheap eats.   They are paying for an expensive experience that happens to come in for under $20.

From the context of evidence-based decision making, the author is not winning an argument that he is finding good value for cheap meals.    I seized this article because I actually agree with the author.   He is providing valuable decisions of high value cheap dinners despite the fact that the commonly accepted evidence is not in his favor.    I praise his decisions for going beyond the evidence.   His decision making is not strictly based on evidence defined as noncontroversial objectively measurable observations.

We could define evidence somewhat differently.  We can define cheap as a threshold of $20 based on a presumed dinner budget.   For example, business meals reimbursements for travelers are based on actual cost that are below some maximum per-diem rate.   As long as the meal is below the per-diem allowance, the price is equivalent to the traveler.    Also we can define quality as a patron who leaves feeling he has satisfied his need for dinner with an excellent meal.  These definitions can turn the decision into an evidence-based one by defining a high threshold below which the variations don’t matter.   For a business traveler, there is no difference between a $10 and a $20 meal because both are fully reimbursed.   Also there is no difference between portion sizes if the smaller portion satisfies his need for dinner either in terms of nutrition or of an acceptable time spent at a table with colleagues.

The above paragraph argues that the decision could be evidence based if we use a different definition of how to measure the quantifiable evidence.   However, I think the author of the article is making an additional argument that justifies his decisions beyond the evidence.   Even if we agree to disagree on being able to experience the difference (either in terms of taste or the health consequences), there is value in knowing where the ingredients come from.

For example, we may appreciate that the vodka used for the bloody Mary was specifically prepared for the purpose of making this particular drink.  We appreciate the fact that the ingredients were prepared in a way that was not intended to be equally useful in 1000 different recipes where one of those is to prepare a comparable tasting bloody Mary.

I differ with the author on the details.  I’m not impressed with the label of “organic” or of geographic origins of ingredients.   However, I do appreciate craftsmanship and skilled effort.   I place a value on live performances.   It is really great that someone can concoct something from scratch even if he makes something indistinguishable from something I can buy in the frozen food section at the discount grocery stores.  The chef for my meal is someone who actually knows how to build a satisfying meal from basic but quality ingredients.   If I can experience this for a meal that comes in for under $20, then I’m willing to grade it a high value for a cheap eat.   At least that would be true during a period when I have an income or on travel where the below-perdiem bill will be reimbursed later.

Similar to placing a value on the performance of the skilled craftsman, I would place a value on the experience of the dining room itself.   To me a pleasant dining experience is one that lasts comfortably for perhaps 90 minutes surrounded by other patrons at just the right density.   I hate to eat in empty dining rooms as much I hate eating in over crowded ones.   There is a nice balance of every table being filled but there is reasonable space between the tables so that conversations are a pleasing background of unintelligible human chatter.   There is value also in the mix of people who are present are the kind of people I’d like to be numbered in their crowd.    Even if I may not appreciate the benefits of organic ingredients, I may find an affinity to people who do appreciate those benefits.

The dining experience goes far beyond what is delivered on a plate.    I sometimes wondered about a business model that presented a room where people can come to simply rent tables.   The menu at the door would list rental rates for different tables based on size and location.  You would come in and pick a table, stay awhile, and then leave after paying that rent.    Perhaps the rent will include some complimentary drinks or eats.    The price of the experience is based on renting a table.   We would grade such an establishment based on the affordability of the tables and the value of the experience sitting at the table.   If the business can attract patrons to fill most of the tables and provide the desired environment of fully occupied tables, we may grade the business as a good value for the price of just renting a table.

As an aside, I think this is what is really happening at many coffee shops.   The environment is designed to provide comfortable seating to encourage people to sit and stay awhile.    The coffee is usually supplied in take-out containers suitable for walking out immediately, but a sizable portion of the customers stay and for periods that exceed would it takes the true take-out customer to consume his coffee.  (As I write this, my travel-cup of 12 oz of tea will last for nearly 2 hours although the last sips will be rather cool).  There is a sense that the store is really renting its community room indirectly through a price of the coffee.    I can imagine a similar business that charges a simple cover fee to enter and stay awhile where there is a single pot of coffee made from mass produced ground coffee found in any supermarket.   The trick is to attract a crowd to stay awhile in a place where they can see others and be seen by others.   Such a place would be judged on the merits of the seating and the type of crowds it attracts rather than the qualities of the coffee.

Back to the dining experience where the cost is based on the meals purchased, I also find value in what may be called negative evidence.   When discussing the value of a cheap meal, one measure of value is the volume of product delivered.   A meal that contains more volume, weight, or calories is more valuable than one that contains less.     Negative evidence is placing more value on a meal that is smaller, lighter, and less caloric.

For me this is true.   A decade ago, I went on a mission to eat out every night of the week at a different restaurant that I can walk to (I have a high tolerance for walking distance) without revisiting the same restaurant twice.   I managed to do this for an entire summer for about 100 places that served meals of some form.   With this in mind, the one thing I didn’t want was to be presented with the opportunity to package the remainder for take-home.   That meant I would lose the opportunity to eat out the next night!   Some restaurants prided themselves on their generous quantities meant to take the other half home for enjoying later.

For me, I will dislike something served in too large quantities.   I will recoil when presented with a meal that is too large for me to consume at a single sitting.    Even now I can recall years-old experiences where only my excessive politeness prevented me from asking them to take it back because it was ridiculously huge for what I wanted.

That was before I overheard the polite trick of asking for small plate, using the larger plate as a kind of family-style serving plate that can be carved from to supply serving to a single plate.  With that trick, there is no guilt leaving more than half of the serving behind because psychologically I’m thinking they own the problem of what to do with the left overs. That strategy works best when eating alone.

In contrast, I am often delighted when presented a meal that is so small portion that at first I didn’t think it would satisfy my hunger, but eating it slowly I find that I have no desire to eat anything more afterwards.    What I find especially delightful is a smallish plate where the food occupies less than half of the area but is presented in a way that says someone took the time to lay out the portion in an artful way.   Even when I estimate the caloric content to be below a standard meal size for dinner, I would leave feeling satisfied that I had my meal for the day.

At least in my personal experience, I often base decisions based on negative evidence.    I can list various examples such as valuing for the same cost a very small house instead of a larger one, a  very small car instead of a larger one, etc.    What matters to me is how well the size suits my needs, not the quantity received.

Lately I have become accustomed to a very low budget that offers a very small dinner size.  For example, I would get from the store a package of meat cut for two servings and then slice each of these in half (or smaller) and find the result to be satisfying for each meal.    The small meal satisfies me perfectly.   Ironically, the recent inflation of meat prices has worked to my favor because now the store is packaging smaller slices of meat with smaller total weight in order to avoid the sticker shock of what it would have been with the sizes packaged a few years ago.   Instead of a 1.25 pound beef steak, today we can find a .5 pound steak sliced in half for two servings.   Just the right size for me without burdening me the challenge of slicing it at home.

Despite this long talk about dining, food and eating is not a big interest of mine.   I liked the basic message of the linked article in the introduction of this post.  The article’s author is arguing that we need to measure value in a way that is not measurable.   This is an argument for decision making that goes beyond the evidence where that word is defined in analogy to courtroom evidence that is acceptable for consideration in making a decision.   The job of a decision maker is to be persuaded to make a particular decision.   While the weight of the evidence certainly adds to that persuasion, there are other elements of persuasion that may not have widely accepted evidence or even may have negative evidence such as my above suggestion that sometimes less is more.

The insistence of evidence-based decision making is a demand to treat all decisions in a courtroom like matter, the decision should only consider the accepted evidence and nothing else but that accepted evidence.   In modern terms and everyday decision making, we translate the word evidence to be equivalent to data.    I suggested in earlier posts of a trend to end all arguments by appealing to the authority of data.  I think this is the same as the demand for evidence-based decision making.    If there is data, our decisions should consider only that data.   So strict is this insistence, that we are becoming comfortable in automating the decision making based on data: this underlies the concepts of real-time predictive analytics.   If data is available, then the only thing acceptable for informing a decision is what is in that data.   Decisions can be automated, or any data-contradicting decisions by humans is a sign of incompetence or fraud.

Evidence-based decision making has a competitor viewpoint from the classical rhetorical arts.  Classical rhetoric focuses on persuasion involving arguments.    Effective arguments use evidence, but are not constrained by the evidence.  Persuasion inherently involves changing human minds based on the argument.  Almost by definition, persuasion of a decision maker can not be automated.   The decision maker needs something more than evidence (mutually accepted as objective and relevant).   The decision maker needs to be persuaded by arguments that use evidence to the fullest advantage but then adds subjective values and even negative-evidence.

The decision maker needs more than evidence to make a decision.  He needs to be persuaded.   The demand for evidence-based decision making is best and more easily resolved by eliminating the human decision maker.   Automation executes decisions based on evidence with no liability on any human for the consequences.   That would deliver evidence-based decision-making, but it will also eliminate the value we found by having to persuade a responsible human to take personal responsibility for the consequences of his becoming persuaded.

In everyday experiences of choosing a good value for dining, we can be persuaded of the merits of organic ingredients even for those of us who see no evidence of any health benefits for this fact.


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