You see a problem in your community. Maybe it’s the homeless person on the side of the street or the foster child that’s being shuttled between homes. Once being exposed to an injustice or the suffering of others, you want to act. However, many of us want to move on a perceived problem quickly because we assume we have all the pertinent information. We can often fall into the trap of thinking a snapshot gives us all we need to know about a problem. Based on our limited knowledge, we then convince ourselves we have the silver bullet needed to eradicate the problem entirely.

Sadly, this leaves us charging into a problem wholly unprepared to unpack and work through the depth and complexity of a person’s circumstances. Even worse, rushing in to help may lead to unintended harm or consequences. If we want to avoid these pitfalls, we have to understand the importance of data collection in our fight to affirm human dignity. 

Data assists to help and not hurt 

There’s a remarkable (yet true!) story that highlights the phenomenon of unintended consequences well. In the 1950s, the country of Borneo had a major malaria outbreak. Government officials called the United Nations and asked what could be done to bring an end to the suffering of the Bornean people. The UN knew immediately what was needed. We understood that mosquitoes were responsible for carrying malaria and transmitting it to humans, so the solution seemed simple enough - if we get rid of the mosquitoes, we get rid of malaria! 

With everything figured out, the UN dropped tons of DDT - a chemical compound used as an insecticide (that’s now illegal in most countries). It did its job - it killed most of the mosquitoes and put an end to the malaria epidemic. It also killed a particular type of wasp that fed on a certain type of caterpillar. Without the wasps, these caterpillars exploded in population. These caterpillars ate the thatch used to make the thatched roofs in Borneo, causing people’s roofs to start caving in. Geckos in the area also started eating DDT-contaminated insects, which made them very lethargic and easy prey for the local cats. This caused the cats to die, leading to an explosion in the local rat population. These rats carried typhoid, which ultimately led to an even worse epidemic than the initial malaria outbreak. To solve the problem, the British Royal Air Force actually had to parachute in cats to help end the new outbreak the UN had created! This is a prime example of the real (and serious) consequences our actions can have on others if we don’t take the time to challenge our assumptions and solicit input from outside our inner circle.

Even if we aren’t “hurting,” we may be using bandaids when the problem is actually cancer. In the late 2000s, the Obama administration did a multi-million dollar study on private prisons and found that private prisons use the current number of minority boys in third grade reading under grade level to project how many prisons they’ll need to build in the next 20 years. Many churches, full of good intentions, latched onto this and scrambled to put together campaigns to boost third grade reading levels.

While this is a great goal and has a lot of merit on its own, it fails to dig deeper and ask WHY minority boys are falling behind in the first place. Systemic poverty, racist approaches to school discipline, family dynamics, food insecurity, and a host of other factors all shape the educational experiences (and ultimately the test scores) of minority children. Big data not only helps us identify symptoms but allows us to better understand how to fight the disease itself.

To pursue true and profound human flourishing, we have to move past the surface and ask questions that are hard and may bring about answers for which we aren’t prepared. 

Data gives perspective and cultivates empathy 

Quantitative data is great. It gives us a snapshot of where we are, and, to an extent, a glimpse into the problems we face. However, it doesn’t come close to giving us all we need. To understand the behaviors and circumstances of others, sociology, psychology, and political science are critical. 

  • These fields shed light on the drivers of disparities and hardship.
  • They help explain “unproductive” behaviors and/or attitudes of those not like us.
  • They cultivate compassion for marginalized and vulnerable people groups.
  • They help develop cultural awareness that actually lets us be more helpful and create environments more conducive to Gospel conversations.

There are already great resources out there to help us gain these kinds of insight. In Promises I Can Keep, author Kathryn Edin describes why poor women may put motherhood before marriage:

“While the poor women we interviewed saw marriage as a luxury, something they aspired to but feared they might never achieve, they judged children to be a necessity, an absolutely essential part of a young woman’s life, the chief source of identity and meaning. To most middle-class observers...a poor woman with children but no husband, diploma, or job is either a victim of her circumstances or undeniable proof that American society is coming apart at the seams. But in the social world inhabited by poor women, a baby born into such conditions represents an opportunity to prove one’s worth.”

This quote demonstrates how two people can look at the same situation and come to radically different conclusions. While we don’t have to agree with or affirm the decisions of others, putting ourselves in their shoes can be an invaluable way to gain insight needed to help break a cycle or engage them with the Gospel. Data is often the mechanism by which we gain empathy - through it, we are able to try on another person’s shoes and walk around a bit in them. 

No matter how we slice it, data in today's world is absolutely critical.

Data humbles and reminds we aren’t God 

Pride is easy. In our broken state, it comes naturally - we don’t even have to try to be prideful. It causes us to reject our neighbor’s insight and look down upon those that question our positions. Data can be incredibly sobering, reminding us - or even showing us for the first time - how large and pervasive a problem actually is. Most causes of marginalization - whether it be poverty, relational brokenness, dehumanization or a host of other things - are MUCH too big for us to solve on our own. If you believe the responsibility to remedy every social problem rests on your shoulders alone, the burden will become crushing. When this is the mindset we adopt, our attitude becomes one of hopelessness, fatalism, despair, or judgmentalism toward the people we claim to want to help.

In his book The World is Not Ours to Save author Tyler Wigg-Stevenson explains, “God said, ‘The world is not yours, not to save or to damn. Only to serve the one whose it is.” Humility brings us to a place where we surrender our problems to God, trusting that He alone has the power to fully heal and restore. This does not by any means absolve us from entering the fight. Instead, it causes us to fight on the right terms with the proper worldview - a worldview that invites partnership, collaboration, and cooperation with others as well as a deep and steady dependence on our Savior to complete the work He has started.

Garrett Clawson
I am the lead data and research analyst with The For the City Network and joined the team in February 2018. I help volunteers, pastors, nonprofit leaders, and business professionals better understand the characteristics and dynamics of their communities so that they can more effectively pursue human flourishing together. I earned my master’s degree in public affairs from the University of Texas - Austin and continue to live in North Austin.