Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The price of bad data

Yesterday Instapundit linked to a story on "the perfect data storm".

Thinking that sounded up my alley, I went and read the article.  It's from a professor named David Clemens at Monterey Peninsula College, complaining about the use of data in higher education:

While knowing full well data’s vulnerability, education managers cannot resist the temptation to be data driven because data absolves them of responsibility; to be data driven lets them say “the data made me do it” (hat tip to Flip Wilson).

That made me sad.  

He cited a few numbers floating around his campus that he knew were bad...transfer rates that only counted transfers to state schools for example....and yet they were still being included in policy decisions as though they were comprehensive.

That made me really sad.

While I enjoy mocking bad data, it's important to remember that there is a real price to it.  That's why I think it's important to empower people to question the data they're hearing and to know what weaknesses to look for when you hear numbers that sound implausible.  

Clemens continues:
....we discover that information does not touch any of the important problems of life. If there are children starving in Somalia, or any other place, it has nothing to do with inadequate information. If our oceans are polluted and the rain forests depleted, it has nothing to do with inadequate information. 
I am going to make a radical suggestion about data and higher education:  colleges and universities will be better served if they avoid kneeling at the altar of data and instead fill key positions with people driven by intuition, experience, values, conviction, and principle.  A good place to start would be looking for leadership guided by a transcendent educational narrative.

I both agree and take issue with this statement.  Data doesn't solve problems, but in a world of limited resources, data can guide us on where to put our efforts.  It's not that most of us don't agree children shouldn't starve in Somalia, it's that the "act first figure out if it works later" approach has the potential to cause as much harm as good.  That's why health care is data driven by necessity.....courts are notoriously unsympathetic to the excuse "I treated the patient this way because my transcendent narrative said it was a good idea".  Data is a good idea when you have an outcome you can't afford to take a chance with.

In the end, I don't think data is to blame for this backlash.  I am relatively sure that the same people who "kneel at the altar of data" to justify their own behavior are the same people who would, absent data, pursue their own gut feelings to the exclusion of rationality.  Intuition is very easily confused with emotion, experience can lead to falsely limiting possibilities, values can be misguided, conviction is dangerous in the wrong hands, and principle is easily warped.  No amount of data can change the way people are, but the more people who can spot the flaws in data and call BS, the better.

*Steps off soap box*

Trudge on friends, and don't let the weasels get you down.


  1. I get his point. I really believe that I do, because he is likely surrounded by people misusing data and hiding behind it rather than giving evidence for their ideas. Colleges are remarkably knuckleheaded in what kinds of data they collect about how good students, course, and professors are. Easy to take a survey and say "rate this class/professor/study carrel on a scale of 1-5" and then praise or condemn on that basis.

    But he is fighting the wrong battle. We are never operating from a position of no data, only good data or bad. There is no data-neutral position, only a data-hidden one.

    "If we say we have no data, the truth is not in us, and we deceive ourselves."

    1. I know, I can totally see it....I've definitely met people who only collect data to shore up the things they already believed....but I agree it's the wrong battle to fight.

      Poor numbers....leave them alone!