Lance Scranton: Nobody really knows
September 1, 2015
Numbers can be collected on just about anything — and these days — everything. Not only are numbers and data available to study enough to earn a PhD, but most of the numbers are in real-time! I hear numbers thrown around all the time in education, politics, religion and psychology; the problem is often that the numbers are just that… thrown around.
To the casual listener, the numbers go in one ear and out the other. We cite numbers and figures to back up just about every claim that we make. Unfortunately, to those who really know and study the numbers, very few statistics can prove something beyond a shadow of a doubt. We see trends and possibilities and even probabilities, but any student of a graduate level statistics class (I've been in three) know that just about every professor starts off the first day of classes mentioning the famous quote attributed to a famous author: "There are lies, damnable lies, and then there are statistics."
Who knows if Mark Twain really uttered such a truism, but if he did, the data proves that he was right! At least it leads to the potential for a causal factor attributed to the data collected using the statistical model! The election of 2012 was statistically headed in the direction of the Democratic Party until the actual election took place. The data had somehow gotten skewed because people told exit-pollers one thing but had voted another way. This was disturbing because pollsters realized that social norming was causing voters to give an answer they thought pollsters wanted but fully intended to vote their conscience.
Interesting twist on the marriage of cold-hard numbers and emotional-social human beings. The numbers people will tell you that they can "control" for most of these types of "abnormalities" that tend to skew data and lead to incorrect assumptions.
We are a culture at war with our sensibilities looking for answers in whatever form seems reliable and trustworthy. Being sensible today means being risk averse to the point of declaring submission to the numbers if they don't favor our ideology or decision-making model. Sometimes the numbers do add up but often they don't and people go ahead and do something anyway and people are shocked when they achieve success. Let's hear it for good old-fashioned common sense and trusting in the foundational pieces of data that form our conscience: character, respect, courage and trust in ourselves.