Monday, July 11, 2016

1667 Drunk on Data

It’s a new addiction.  Reduce everything to numbers.  And then what?  Shoot at their feet and make ‘em dance… just like in the old time cowboy movies.

What do they do with all those surveys they shovel at you on the internet?  Especially when people lie on them?  Especially when they try to quantify an emotion out of context.  Especially when the terms are undefined.

“Good service” or bad can mean something different to everyone.  Some minor annoyance (the wheel on my cart squeaked) can annoy someone to the point that he dislikes the entire experience.

“If the election were held today, candidate X would beat candidate Y by Z-points.”

It gets worse when the stats look backward:

“Candidate X beat candidate Y by 5 points.”  So why is candidate Y taking the oath of office?  Oh. Well. When we said X won, we meant among coal miners under the age of 55 in Boca Raton, FL.

All this is part of a larger problem that we’ve addressed before, here and here:  Take something, wrap it in statistics and everyone will believe it.  We are as a culture math phobic and unwilling to fix it.

At our peril.

Surely there must be at least one type of therapy for that. If not, it’s the only widespread affliction without one.

We need those numbers.  But that’s not all we need.

Big data don’t confuse people.  People confuse people.  The only weapon against bad data are law abiding citizens armed with good data.

In a world dominated by figurer hounds like Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight and Nate Cohn who writes for the Upshot section of the New York Times, we need explanations.  (We also need more guys named Nate to work for similar departments at the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today. Someone please call the World Federation of Nathans and motivate.)

There’s no doubt we need good data.  After all, without it how would health and life insurance companies know how much to overcharge us?  How would we know how many refugees have fled the Middle East war zone?  How would we know who was elected President.  Oh, wait. That number of votes doesn’t really count.

We need figures.  But we need to remember that coating a lie in arithmetic doesn’t mean it’s no longer a lie.

-- “Business Insider” is a popular and insightful website run by fallen Wall Street star Henry Blodget and partly owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Lately it’s been promoting Amazon regularly. Bezos’ other media company, the Washington Post, hasn’t gotten the memo… yet.

--A bunch of guys dressed in Confederate Army uniforms raised their battle flag on the pole outside the South Carolina capitol building Sunday to the cheers of brain dead and robotic followers in the crowd.  It was “Bring it Back” day for people who didn’t like the recent ban of the flag. They called the sanest recent action to take place on those grounds “the greatest act of treason” ever committed on that piece of land.

-What happens when your memory foam mattress gets too old to remember you?

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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© WJR 2016

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