Are You Data Literate?

Imagine a world where books were ubiquitous, but nobody knew how to read. Books as fine objects d’art. Connoisseurs prizing intricate bindings. Hand tooled leather covers, rich papers with hand torn edges, crisp fonts in dark inks marching across every page. But no comprehension, just a market place of… objects. Manufacturers pumping out these beauties so even the lowliest Walmartian could afford a whole room dedicated to blind beauty.

The weaving together and then unraveling of A’s and B’s and C’s into meaning and insight, no matter how mundane is a critical skill in our modern world. Literacy, the ability to use text to encode, transmit and decode meaning, context, and texture, enriches our lives. By and large we recognize that, teaching reading at a very young age, filling in with adult literacy programs, and getting into righteous debates about the best way for kids to learn to read.

Reading Data
Is data literacy any less important? As Moore’s Law doubles and redoubles our Digital capabilities, isn’t the data represented world becoming as ubiquitous as the print represented world? And yet the evidence is all around us, in big ways and small, that our collective ability to read data, to understand and navigate in data represented realities can’t even match the muddled appreciation of our alleged Walmartian mentioned above.

Have you noticed that every single car insurance ad from every single company seems to mention that on average, drivers that switch to them save a gazillion dollars? How is that possible? It would seem to imply a spiral that eventually has the insurance companies paying us to cover our cars (hmmm… could we make that work for health care?). That trope, of course, depends on a basic misunderstanding of what constitutes good data. Of course drivers that switch save money. Why else would they switch? It’s a population that self selects and says absolutely nothing about the relative costs of insurance between companies in general. Duh.

That’s perhaps no big deal, simply a tax on the data illiterate. But if we turn to, say, politics then things can get serious, such as the recent election and the ideology-over-reality driven agenda of our fledgling 2011 House of Representative. Take, for example, the health care repeal they recently passed. Whichever side you’re on about universal healthcare, healthcare reform, death panels etc, the charge up that repeal hill should be a tad puzzling. One of the standards held high in that action was fiscal responsibility. And yet, neutral observers agree that actually succeeding in repeal would cost an incremental $230 billion dollars over the next 10 years or so. Pretty soon, we’re talking real money.

Or let’s turn to Ms. Palin’s disingenuous cry of “blood libel” after the events in Tucson. Absolutely Jared Loughner is a loon for whom she cannot be held directly responsible. Liberal attempts to make that connection as if in a court of law are, to be generous, reaching. But to shrilly insist that the representations we make (cross hairs on districts) and the Digital cannons that we fire them with (her own website) have no impact on the collective conscious… Well I guess I’d trust my Walmartian’s digital data savvy more than hers (or the liberal head hunters for that matter).

Data is Truth, Truth Data – That is All?
We seem to have this childish belief that once we have the data, truth will follow, that the ambiguity and confusion will fall away and no further intelligence or judgment is required. When we amplify that belief through Digital means, bizarre stuff begins to happen.

If you’ve followed this rant for any period of time, you know I get jumpy about the editing that occurs when we necessarily trim messy analog reality to fit in the little data boxes that drive Digital capabilities. I still worry about that, but as we get further into this digital revolution, I’m beginning to pay more nervous attention to how those little data boxes get unpacked by us consumers of the Digital (aka everyone).

Like a band of hyper–terriers following a fleet of rats, we and our doctors leap and dart after every new study of pharmaceutical approaches to health. Are you taking statin drugs to reduce cholesterol? I am. It’s a clinically proven fact that statins reduce my chance of having a heart attack. Or maybe not.

It would seem that the ultimate data jockeys, scientists, are beginning to question the, ah, ultimate stability of any data set. In a New Yorker article titled “The Truth Wears Off”, Johan Lehrer recounts growing concern in the scientific community about something labeled the “Decline Effect” The short hand on this is (here I go trimming), many of our treasured, clinically replicated, data driven findings seem to become less data driven over time. That is, the data (and the interpreted results) of early studies become less and less replicable over time. True for popular anti-depressant drugs, studies in memory and perceptions, and a wide range of other scientifically derived “reality.” Over time, the data driven medical ‘truths” on which your doc is basing his prescriptions for you, may not be quite as true as we first thought.

If the data is getting squishy on the scientists, God help us mere mortals in our data wrestling endeavors.

Towards a More Literate Reality – Represented or Otherwise
So what to do? Run squealing into some imagined Analog Only sanctum? Well probably not. The Digital drawer of Pandora’s box has been opened and we need to find a way to cope. Digital lives and breaths on data derived reality. All the digital wonders rely on our ability to package realities into bits and bytes, transport those tidy little packages and then unpack them at some remove.

Certainly we want to hold our packagers of data, the computer scientists, the engineers, the programmers to a high standard for their initial transformation of Analog reality into Digital representation. But the burden of fidelity is not just on those that do the packaging. It also resides with all of us, whenever we open those tidy little packages and let them bloom back into the Analog light of day.

We cannot be confused, as were early consumers of moving pictures, between the picture and the represented reality. Like-wise we cannot ignore the preconceptions, the values, and the biases that the packagers bring to their tasks. Over the years, the decades, the millennia we have become quite adept at appreciating not only the object of art, but also the impact of the artists’ beliefs, skill, and context-of-the-moment on the work in front of us.

Whether Caveman, Dutch Master, or skuzzy corner performance artist there is a part of us that is made human by our representations of reality and our appreciation of them. Digital doesn’t change that, but it does amplify and accelerate the impacts of our representations and the underlying beliefs and savvy with which we create them. With great capability, comes great accountability. Be literate out there.

2 thoughts on “Are You Data Literate?

  1. “…we cannot ignore the preconceptions, the values, and the biases that the packagers bring to their tasks.” Absolutely true, but problematic. With the rise of the internet “instapundits,” for whom there is no accountability, how do consumers of data know when an interpretation comes from a straight arrow or a heavily skewed source? Websites that look like serious medical organizations are often highly camouflaged sales sites, for example. And great masses of internet users are not careful consumers, but willing to believe anything thrown their way (just read snopes). Then there are the subset who only want information from their “own side,” however blown out of proportion — want to believe vaccinations cause autism? or that the President's not a citizen? Hey, we got data for you!

    Having now decided that the media, the government, and the words “studies show” can't be trusted… we navigate the world even more blindly. I foresee a whole lot of walking into walls.

  2. @Vashti – Aren't there studies that show helmets help prevent injuries when walking into walls?

    Seriously though, you've hit on a key difficulty. I think it arises from our desire to have an instant answer, but things like embedded bias and values tend only to reveal themselves over time and experience. Walking slowly will a)give those more time to be revealed and b)minmize the damage when we do, inevitably, walk into a few walls here and there.

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