Death, Data, and Decisions…

Wil Reynolds
5 min readMay 29, 2019

For 3 of the last 5 years, I’ve driven cross country 6 times to work from our west coast office. Why drive? Well my wife is extremely uncomfortable with putting the dog on a 5–6 hour flight. So our agreement is I drive the dog out there, no big deal, I have come to love the challenge of the drive and the open road and ability to listen to some great books / podcasts.

Me and the dog on the way back

Before leaving I mentioned to Nora, you know that by asking me to drive cross country with the dog I’m more likely to die than if we flew the dog. ← Don’t say this to your wife.

I had my data:

Dog likelihood of death: In 2016, in the US there were 26 deaths of animals in cargo. Or .5 deaths per 10,000 flights (source).

My likelihood of death while driving: 11 in 100,000 people die in auto fatalities. (source)

My likelihood of death while flying: LOW AF! I’m 100x more likely to die in a car crash than a plane crash. (source)

These are facts. Now lets talk about the things I can’t prove with data

If I’m driving with the dog, I bet the likelihood of the dog and I dying if I die in a crash are pretty high. The odds of me dying in a crash and the dog living are slim. So if I go, we’re probably BOTH going. Also outside of the data…

I’m more valuable to my wife than the dog.
I bring in an income, the dog costs money.
I can help take care of the kids, the dog growls at the kids.
The kids might actually like to have their dad around in 5–10–15 years from now.
I’m still in the prime of my life, the dog has 2 maaaaaybe 3 years left.

She got a bit upset…

I mentioned this to my wife and she got pretty upset. Was she upset at herself for making a decision on emotional stories she’s heard that have no rooting in statistical facts? Nope. She didn’t want to deal with thinking about the implications of her decision. (Of course we could have said, just stay in Philly and don’t go to SD to lower the odds), but taking that off the table.

I recognize both odds are low, so I drove.

Unfortunately I thought about this for a good 4–5 hours as I drove through new mexico in a blizzard…which My likelihood of death increased a good bit…

A DANGEROUS lesson in optimization

Google maps kept optimizing to get me to Tuscon, it never said the local government keeps shutting down roads due to the blizzard, so find a hotel, instead it gave me smaller and smaller roads to go on, more and more of them were over mountains, where I couldn’t see, and I saw no cars for miles, it was scary.

This is effing New Mexico Ya’ll.

When I do these drives I invite alumni and current peeps to call me just to talk, during this part of the drive I told both Kim Jones and James Corr that I’d call them back after the weather got bad, it took me HOURS to call them back as I had to use every ounce of mental energy to stay focused.

My likelihood of death skyrocketed for that 4–5 hours, I saw cars spin out in front of me and crash (at 15–20 Mph), I couldn’t see, it was hard to drive, my wipers kept freezing, I had no mobile signal, and I didn't know where I was. I couldn’t see any houses, just mailboxes on the road.

The only thing that kept me hopeful was seeing a car coming in the opposite direction every 15–20 minutes. So yeah I probably spiked likelihood of death for sure, as I had to get out of my car multiple times to see where the cliffs dropped off to make sure I wasn’t close to the edge. When I finally got to a place with a traffic light after 3 hours of slooooow driving, I slid through an intersection on ice, luckily the guy coming through saw me unable to completely stop, he saw my tires locking up, luckily I went through the intersection at only about 5 MPH, so I wouldn’t have been taken out, but man that one sucked.

Luckily it all worked out.

A BIG lesson about data & emotions, no one is immune

My wife is a smart woman, 2 undergrad degrees, 2 masters, and a PhD with a background working in data. So I would have thought, making a case with data doesn’t work on the “average” person, but my God, my wife no way. She’s smart gets the data parts.

Boy was I wrong, this goes to show the power of emotions, sensational headlines (“Dog dies in cargo hull”), and a whole lot of other things at play. My wife was saying in theory: if you want to eliminate the likelihood of death, don’t go to San Diego, but if you must you are driving with the dog because it makes me uncomfortable to fly the dog in cargo, even though that means you are more likely to die, which means I lose my partner, who is in the prime of his life, and adds more value to the family than the dog.

As I embark on MORE DATA, I’ve seen this first hand. If my big data pull says we don’t need content, or we don’t need links to win, with data, statistics, etc, and someone at the table had pitched a big link building project or their title is link builder or copywriter, they are highly likely to refute data, with their gut. Why? Because it impacts their perceived self-value to the organization, if someone came in with a bunch of data that might even hint at invalidating how I see my value in the organization, its in my best interests to fight it.

The true test of being data driven is when you value accurate data over data that validates what you want the data to say. That’s what I’m learning. Too often we go in with a desire for what the data is going to tell us, and if it doesn’t tell us that we’ll fight it tooth and nail. Look no further than the Semmelweis effect.

Voting against your best interests

This got me thinking, we make fun of people when they do X thing we don’t understand, vote against their best interests, etc, and educated people like us think things like “dumbasses voting against _______ , this is going to HELP you, why would you want to get rid of it?” yet “those people” are being just as irrational as we are with all of our smarts. I don’t mean to make this political, but I sit in a lot of conversations where people “just don’t understand” how people make their decisions.

I know I used to say that a lot, now I’ll think twice about that, thanks hun.



Wil Reynolds

Serial Underdog @seerinteractive doing SEO, Marketing, & Stuff, I am whatever you say I am.