Listen Up: Data Doesn’t Lie (people do)

I have been a bit unhappy with academics as of late, in particular, the “parachuters” who occasionaly drop into the community and call themselves community researchers. In the interest of fairness, I feel I have to turn the same critical eye on the sordid underbelly of community based organizations as well. Rampant anti-intellectualism (I still love you Sarah!) has led to resistance to research, in particular an irrational distrust of data and statistics that frequently manifests itself in the alternate universe that is the world of non-profits. I recently interviewed someone for a research and evaluation position, who responded to one of my questions with a heartfelt “well, data lies”.  The wisdom of such a statement when interviewing for a data driven position is questionable, but anyone who has spent as much time in and around CBOs as I have, finds it hard to be shocked by such a comment. Staff often giggle uncontrollably at the thought of running basic statistical analyses, as in their eyes this is “nerdy work.” I have two things to say to such individuals: (1) you tend to be 30 something, so act your age; and (2) didn’t you hear that nerds won? Is that an iPhone or iPad in your hands? What is a social psychologist to do?

I have mounted numerous stages to rally support for the continuing role of community based organizations as relevant vehicles for promoting health. CBOs were at the forefront, on a grassroots and political level in the 1980’s, arguing more attention and resources need to be devoted to combatting HIV/AIDS.  I believe in the power of the people. But I also believe in numbers. Without data, how do you propose we say there is a need? An anecdote can pull at your heart strings, but don’t ignore the power of numbers to motivate the allocation of resources and funding. Without data, how do you know the true scope of the epidemic? Without data how do you understand the underlying factors? Right now, transgendered individuals don’t get as many resources dedicated to them in the fight against HIV/AIDS. You know why that is? It’s because we have no data! Yet, oftentimes there is an illogical outcry declaiming evaluation as an impediment to program implementation. Sure, data entry can be time consuming and tedious (unfortunate descriptor that is often used). But impede program implementation? If there is no data do you expect people to simply take your word that the program is working because you have an honest face?  Personality only gets you in the door.  Data gets you invited back.

Data doesn’t lie. It is what it is. People lie. People take data and make judgments, interpret numbers conveniently, cherry pick data that supports talking points, and manufacture mirages. But don’t be fooled. Instead of dismissing all data as one big lie designed to support “the man”, get informed and learn to use data to bolster your own cause.  And learn enough to be able to interpret other people’s data.  Then maybe you really would know whether they are lying or not.  Not everyone had to be a scientist or a statistician, but don’t take pride in ignorance.  And for god’s sake, put “data lies” on your top ten list of things you shouldn’t say in an interview, unless you have a doctorate in statistical theory and can actually prove it.

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