Academia

Retrospective pet peeve: The year data died

I am ostensibly a data geek. Apparently always have been. Although, at times it has been by default. 

Take for instance when I worked at the US Department of Justice. I could add, I could create graphs and I could (more or less) explain the numbers. Bingo. I became the data steward of my office.  At one point, I had to provide senate testimony on numbers and all because I could add. I was in an office predominantly made up of lawyers. They could argue. I could add. 
Eventually I went to graduate school at Berkeley where it was required that we each specialize in a statistical method. So, I did. I then went to work at the CDC where they needed not a numbers nerd but a person who could talk to others and get information (you know, like in interviews). I’m a known chatterbox and I wanted information. Surprisingly, throughout my life, people want to tell me things. All sorts of things. Thus, began my life as a qualitative researcher complementing my love of numbers. And so my life continues in this trajectory.
Here is the thing. I like data. But a lot of people do not. People believe data lies. Some people are afraid of data because many take it personally. Some use data as a weapon with which to hit people into submission. In the United States there is a big sense that data is bad and against the little guy. Yet, everyone has a smart phone, iPad, fitbit, an echo and so on. Those are all built on numbers and data. Furthermore, Americans are the most over-surveyed in the world. Yet, Americans love providing their opinions -even on things that don’t exist.  It would be an understatement to say this country has a love/hate relationship with data.

And as a data geek, I too have such a relationship with data. Sometimes we over rely on it to the point that common sense goes out the window. While I am trained as a scientist, I have almost always gone with my gut when it came to big decisions.  But I’m a bit saddened at how data just fell apart this year.
Not many saw Brexit coming. Well, those that are supposed to see what is coming. I would assume that those that voted for it, could envision it happening. Look at the polls in the United States and how off they were in regards to the Presidential election. That morning I briefly watched the news coverage and shook my head. I knew they were wrong and that Trunp would win. And that was because many data people were acting a bit arrogant going after other pollsters that seemed way off. But data is the result of what you put in. Thus, garbage in, garbage out. Polls were all over the place. They have been for a while. I won’t go into why that is other than to say no methodology has found a good way to adjust and account all together for technology, social desirability, marginalized voters and emotion. 
So, after this diatribe,  what exactly is my pet peeve?  I used to defend data. I used to get peeved at job applicants who happily noted that data lied. Now, I’m peeved at my past peeving. Is there such a word? It sounds so, so, so wrong in many ways. Actually, my old pet peeve still stands. Data doesn’t lie. It’s garbage in. It’s garbage out.   It’s incompetency. It’s arrogance. 
While the music died in 2016 so did data. Just a little bit. Actually, perhaps a lot. 

7 replies »

  1. I found your post interesting and thought provoking. Have I ever mentioned to you that I’m a molecular biologist? My spin on this is that numbers alone don’t lead us to inescapable conclusions. In my field, the same data sometimes is consistent with alternative hypotheses. Our quantitative reasoning constrains and is supported by our qualitative reasoning, and there lies the problem. We are becoming more information driven than thought driven, and the best way to keep a large mass of people deceived is to bombard them with information (true, false, relevant, irrelevant, cherry-picked, and otherwise) and trust in the fact that most will not bother or will be unable to sift through it. I was impressed by your educational and work record, so I imagine you understand the importance of analyzing data properly. Society at large is not thinking well. I wish you the best for the coming new year.

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    • Ah, yes. I like how you frame data vs thought driven. Quite on point . sadly. Sometimes data makes it so that people get lazy. Which seems so counterproductive and ironic.
      Well, let’s see how the new year treats our data.. Or rather what we do with it.
      Hope you have a wonderful 2017 and much health.
      Cheers

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thought of this right away. Dune gets me every time.

    “You will learn the integrated communication methods as you complete the next step in your mental education. This is a gestalten function which will overlay data paths in your awareness, resolving complexities and masses of input from the mentat index-catalogue techniques which you already have mastered. Your initial problem will be the breaking tensions arising from the divergent assembly of minutiae/data on specialized subjects. Be warned. Without mentat overlay integration, you can be immersed in the Babel Problem, which is the label we give to the omnipresent dangers of achieving wrong combinations from accurate information.”
    -The Mentat Handbook

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  3. I believe in many ways our world is too dependent on data. We can’t think for ourselves anymore. Data has taken away the creativity in our lives, yet it makes businesses rich. I like when data makes us successful and rich. I’m trying to make people see that data can be used as a tool for predictive analysis. Okay, computer tell me what you think I’m going to buy. Garbage in garbage out right?

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