Zen and The Art of Data Maintenance: Data, Politics, and Polarization

An angry mob outside government buildings killed people because of political disagreement. This mob represented one political party and their views were so strong against the other that they committed extremely violent, shameful actions leading to destruction and death. Many have argued that the leader of the group incited the mob and was complicit in allowing it to happen. The angry mob was associated with a group known as the ‘orange faction’.

I am referring to the horrific events that occurred on October 20, 1672. On this day, Dutch prime minister Johan De Witt and his brother Cornelius were murdered, and the mob followed a leader of the Orangists named William III of Orange. After the victims were attacked by members of the Hague’s civic militia, they were shot, stripped, and their mutilated bodies were strung up on the nearby public gallows, “while the Orangist mob partook of their roasted livers in a cannibalistic frenzy.”[i]

This was due to polarization and differences of opinions between two political groups.


The polarity we are facing today is not something new.

It seems that we, as human beings, have a propensity towards polarization, division and lack of respect for other peoples’ views leading to contentious and even violent behavior. Lately, I have heard so many people exclaim that they can’t even be with another person if they have the opposite political opinion.

My fellow data professionals, after the event that occurred on January 6, 2021, I felt sad, angry, and compelled to say something.

However, what to say? This column is about data and Zen. So, what can be shared regarding politics from a ‘data’ perspective? What can be shared from a Zen perspective?

Please hear me. I believe politics is an extremely sensitive subject and my intentions in this article are to share things that could possibly help. I certainly do not want to inflame anything that would move us to pour more oil on this fire of polarization.

Thus, in my words that follow, I will attempt to share from a neutral, independent perspective. I think this is probably an impossible task, since I, just like every human being, have opinions, perspectives, biases, emotions, and judgments, and yet, I will still strive to do my best toward this task. Furthermore, since you, the reader, also have these things, it may be a challenge not to be polarized as you read this, and yet I ask that in the interest of living well, that you try to read this maintaining a centered stance.

Why Be Centered?

When people are polarized, this leads to societal divisions that can be extremely harmful and lead to disastrous conflicts (on personal and group levels).

I believe that one of the most important principles in living a good life is to be centered. This applies emotionally, psychologically, physically, and spiritually. This is what Zen is. Zen means awareness. It means living at the center without having our minds hijacked and taken over by opinions, judgments, and stories. Of course, we have opinions, judgments, and stories; however, in Zen, just like in our data world, it is important to distinguish the data and facts from our opinions, judgments, and stories.

It is equally important to apply the practice of being centered in the political context. Yet, does it seem that most people are politically centered these days?

Now, of course, you and I are centered, or at least we want to think we are! In truth, I acknowledge that there are many times that I am not centered. As human beings, we cannot be centered all the time. But the trick is, that as things happen, to more quickly bring ourselves closer to the center. 

So where is the center? We are at the center when our mind is free and is not taken over by a particular thought pattern or way of thinking that is on one side. Of course, we are free to choose a side, make decisions, lean one way or another; however, when we are centered, we are in a state where we can see and appreciate various perspectives and choose our stance and position freely and wisely. From a state of being centered we can more easily and more frequently accept other peoples’ perspectives when we disagree. Even if there is a conflicting perspective that we feel is important to fight for, we can do this in a wise and compassionate way.

Data, Facts And Stories

One way to move away from polarization is to distinguish data, facts and stories. Since semantics are important, especially in our field of data management, let’s define terms, starting with ‘data.’

There are actually many definitions for ‘data.’ Some definitions claim that data is synonymous with facts, for example, Dictionary.com has one definition that says that data is “a body of facts.” However, is data really synonymous with facts? I could have a piece of data that says that Len Silverston is 48 inches tall and obviously this is not a fact. It may be bad or incorrect data and yet it is still data. This is why we have the discipline of data quality to assess and improve the quality of the data.

From an etymological perspective, “Data is a plural of datum, which is originally a Latin noun meaning ‘something given.’ [iv]  The latter suggests an alternative definition of data in that data is something can be given, such as a value from a database which may be factual or not. Data may be a measurement, a statement, or something that is provided. This is the definition we will use for this article. Then, what is a fact? Vocabulary.com says, “Something factual is real. It is based in fact, meaning it can be proven, repeated, or observed. In fact, ‘fact’ is the root of the word ‘factual,’ from the Latin word factum, meaning “event, occurrence.” The factual part of a story is the part that really happened.” [v] There are many definitions of stories as well, but as a general guideline, let’s use the following for this article: a story is “a description, either true or imagined, of a connected series of events.”[vi] Stories tend to include opinions, perceptions, emotions, and/or judgments.

So, if the fact is what actually happened or what is happening, then quite often, and especially these days, it is difficult to discern what the facts actually are.

How do we know when the data is factual, or when something is opinion, judgment, or story?

In the book, ‘Crucial Conversations,’[vii] the authors suggest starting any important conversation with the facts first before the story. The authors suggest that if something is a fact then it is indisputable. So, what are the facts regarding politics?

Let’s consider the recent Unites States presential election, what data was presented, and what facts occurred. Remember, let’s stay centered as we read on! We’re just exploring the questions, ‘What is the data, what are the facts, and what are the stories?’ from a neutral perspective.

Data regarding the 2020 US presidential election was that state election officials reported and certified that there were a little over 81,200,000 popular votes and 306 electoral votes for one candidate. In addition, there were a little over 74,200,000 popular votes and 232 electoral votes for another candidate. Using criteria from our previous definition of facts, the data saying that election officials reported and certified these results can be proven and observed by looking at the election report documents. Thus, these statements seem factual.

Regarding the controversy of whether the election was possibly flawed or fraudulent, or was run cleanly, what are the data points, facts, and stories? Many say that the election results weren’t fraudulent, that it was proven through many means that the elections process was run cleanly. There were observations to support this position such as election results being recounted many times with the same result. There is no evidence that would contradict that the result was fair. Yet, many also have contested that the election was conducted fraudulently, that it was proven through many means that there were problems with the election process. There were observations regarding illegitimate handling of the election process such as addresses missing on ballots, and there was evidence that would contradict that the result was fair. So, which of these are data points, facts, and stories? Some data points are that election recounts happened with similar results and there was missing information on some ballets. These both seem factual. Regarding other data points and what is factual and what is story, there has been disagreement.  There is also a tendency to communicate and focus on the pieces of data that support our own story, which can also lead to polarization.

I have personally talked to many and when I even mention the above claims, people will sometimes get quite disturbed and often proceed to emphatically show more ‘data’ to prove the position they hold, or some may just not want to even talk about this at all, especially to someone with a different ‘story.’ I personally have a position, opinion, and perspective on what happened in the election results, but as I have said previously, this article is about reducing polarity, and thus I am not going to share my opinion about that in this article.

If data is disputed by many, does it mean that it’s not factual? It seems that almost anything can be disputed, proven and also disproved, observed by some and not observed by others. So then, do we need a different definition of what factual means? If we claim that something is not factual, what is the criteria regarding assessing if this is a reasonable argument of something not being factual? If more people (or even all people) agree that data is factual, does that make it so? A long time ago, when people on earth believed that the earth was flat, that didn’t make it so.

Some that have questioned the vote counts have cited Benford’s law (also called the first-digit law,)  a statistical rule often used to test the validity of the data, such as whether an election is legitimate or phony. Yet, many sources say using this for the 2020 US election is a misapplication of this law. [viii]

Perhaps it is a matter of the development of trust. If we live in an extremely untrusting environment, how can we rely on things being true?

What about claiming that when someone says something and it is recorded, that it is a fact that they said this? For example, we can take a direct quote from someone involved in the election and say that it is a fact that they said something specifically. However, we are picking out a specific thing that was said without the full context, so aren’t we then creating a story by cherry-picking what we choose to point out? Also, the words that are said are not the whole story either. There is tone, facial expressions, intentions, and other content. To better understand, we can view a video. However, even with a video, interpretations can be made for what the person meant. Will we choose the pieces of data to present in order to make the argument that we want to make?

Another perspective is to ask, ‘Do the data or facts even matter?’ There is a lot of neuroscience that shows that decisions are largely emotional and not even based on data or facts![ix] Have you noticed that when people share ‘facts,’ that this rarely changes one’s political opinions or which side they have chosen to advocate?

Is the data skewed by our political system? Some claim that a two party system, like there is in the United States, leads to polarization since there are only real two options. In William Ury’s book, Getting Past No: Negotiating in Difficult Situations,[x] he shares a concept called “the sucker’s choice” where the conflict is set up in such a way that we think we only have two choices. This is in contrast to seeing that in conflicts, we often have many more choices than we realize. Many other countries have more two parties. Perhaps this helps move us away from polarized choices.

The above arguments and discussion have a great deal to do with the topic of data literacy, which is a topic that can help us identify if something is factual or not. [xi]

Not Knowing

Another point of polarization is whether we know or don’t know. When is it appropriate to question and when is it appropriate to just know that we just know?

One of the most powerful Zen principals is standing in ‘not knowing.’ We want to know. We want to be right. We want security. We want to know what will happen. However, there are few things we know with certainty. The Greek philosopher Socrates, a character known for his wisdom, was attributed with saying, “I know that I know nothing.”

How many possibilities are there if do not know? If we know something for sure, does this limit our possibilities?

And yet, as in most things and particularly in Zen, there is wisdom in appreciating opposites. It helps us be in the center. Thus, in addition to ‘not knowing,’ there are important times to just know. Niels Bohr, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, is attributed in saying, “the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”

What About Taking a Stand?

What if we feel that something that happened is so egregious that we must take a stand? So, why not forget about being centered and take a position? If we are centered, does this really mean we just don’t take a strong stance in what we believe?

After all, the capital of the US was stormed by a mob. Perhaps we feel that people acted in such a harmful and disrespectful manner that we must fight for what we believe in. The United States was formed by a revolution where people took a stance. Thus, we may feel, ‘Isn’t it time that I took a stance?’

It is important to take a stance. It is important to act virtuously and with courage. Yet, when we act from our center and take a stance from our center, without the rigidity of a one-sided position, we are more stable and stronger.

Politics and Polarization in Data Management

Another form of politics happens in data management. For example, I think that one of the greatest issues in data management is when we vehemently and rigidly argue that ‘my’ way of thinking is right and yours is wrong. For example, my data model is good and yours is bad. My ideas about architecture are correct and yours are incorrect. To be fair, there are different levels of expertise where certain designs and ways of doing things may be more beneficial. However, I have observed a great deal of polarization between equally talented professionals from arguments about how their way is the one true ‘right’ way.

One factor that could lead to polarization may be ‘The Dunning–Kruger effect,’[xii] which is a cognitive bias hypothesis that people with low ability at a task overestimate their ability and misperceive people of high ability. Thus, according to this hypothesis, a person of high ability will tend to be humble about their own skills and tend not to knock others as much.

There is a famous joke about data modelers that asks the question, ‘What is the difference between a data modeler and a terrorist?’ The answer is ‘You can negotiate with a terrorist!’

The practice of thinking with absolute certainty that ‘I am right’ or ‘I know’ can lead to polarization, division, data silos, and disintegration of systems (separate, unconnected systems). The statistician, George Box, offers the perspective, “All models are wrong, but some are useful,” since any model is just a representation of reality and cannot be reality.

What Can We Do To Reduce Polarization and Division?

In order to move towards integration (bringing together) and not disintegration (i.e., separating into parts or ‘crumbling’), I have five suggestions:

  1. Listen, first without adding stories – One of the greatest gaps in communications occurs when we take in information and then immediately add our perceptions, stories, filters, judgments, and opinions. It is quite difficult, maybe sometimes even impossible, to just listen to the raw data/information being presented and yet, this is perhaps one of the most useful skills to not only understanding, but to creating harmonious relationships.
  2. Separate data and facts from story. We, as humans, are story-telling machines. We love to tell stories. There are such great advantages in telling stories such as being able to influence positive actions. So, we will have stories, perceptions, opinions, judgments, and emotions. If we can label and identify the stories and opinions that arise, as distinguished from the data and facts, we free ourselves from rigidness and of blocking out alternative perspectives. This leads to integration and connection. 
  3. Identify commonalities and differences. When we find ourselves on the opposite side of an argument, what if we first found things we have in common so as to build a bridge and move towards connection? Then, it may be easier to delve further by understanding the differences respectfully.[xiii]
  4. Practice operating from our center. One of the characteristics of operating at our center is that we can access a multitude of perspectives. This helps us understand and appreciate as many perspectives as possible and move away from being polarized or rigid. From our center, we are not taken over by any particular perspective, and yet we can choose actions freely and wisely.

I challenge all of us to have open minds, to empathize and appreciate each other’s perspectives even when it is difficult. I challenge all of us to use our incredible human aptitude of discernment to distinguish data and facts from story while also recognizing that, with the use of skillful means, data, facts, and story can all be valuable.

[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johan_de_Witt

[ii] Image by John Hainhttps://pixabay.com/illustrations/tribalism-antagonism-opposition-1201697/

[iii] Image by Comfreakhttps://pixabay.com/illustrations/book-dog-fairy-tales-child-kid-794978/

[iv] https://www.dictionary.com/browse/data#:~:text=Data%20is%20a%20plural%20of%20datum%2C%20which%20is,data%20is%20available%20on%20flood%20control%20in%20Brazil%29.

[v] https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/factual

[vi] https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/story

[vii] Patterson et al., ‘Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High’, Second Edition, MacGraw-Hill, 2012

[viii] https://physicsworld.com/a/benfords-law-and-the-2020-us-presidential-election-nothing-out-of-the-ordinary/

[ix] https://bigthink.com/experts-corner/decisions-are-emotional-not-logical-the-neuroscience-behind-decision-making

[x] Ury, w., ‘Getting Past No: Negotiating in Difficult Situations’, Bantam Books, 1991

[xi] https://www.dataversity.net/the-dangers-of-data-illiteracy-coronavirus-and-data-distortions/

[xii] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/dunning-kruger-effect

[xiii]  These are thoughts inspired from the following book: Sachs, J, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations Continuum; 2nd edition (March 24, 2003)

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Len Silverston

Len Silverston

Len Silverston is a best-selling author, consultant, speaker and internationally acclaimed expert and thought leader in the fields of data governance, data modeling, data management, and in the human dynamics of integrating information data. He is the author of The Data Model Resource Book series (Volumes 1, 2, and 3), which describe hundreds of reusable data models. The volume 1 book was rated #12 on the Computer Literacy Best Seller List and his volume 1 and 2 books have been translated into Chinese and in 2009, he co-authored “The Data Model Resource Book, Volume 3, Universal Patterns for Data Modeling”, which has been translated into Korean. Mr. Silverston has published many articles and has been a keynote speaker at many international data conferences. He is the winner of the DAMA (Data Administration Management Association) International Professional Achievement Award and the DAMA International Community Award. He has given many keynotes and has received the highest speaker rating at several international conferences. Mr. Silverston's company, Universal Data Models, LLC, http://www.universaldatamodels.com provides consulting, training, publications, and software to enable information integration as well as people integration. - He is also a personal and corporate mindfulness coach, trainer, and teacher and has studied and taught many forms of spirituality and life development skills for over thirty years. He has attended, staffed and/or led hundreds of days of silent, intensive retreats as well as dozens of life development workshops. After intensive practice in Zen, he was ordained as a Zen Priest in 2011. ‘Kensho’ Len Silverston provides ongoing ‘Zen With Len’ (http://www.zenwithlen.com) individual and corporate coaching, seminars, meditation gatherings, and retreats.

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