Fake Stats

With the recent spate of fake news (why can’t we just call them lies?), I started thinking about the growing chasm between statistical/fact creators and media consumers. Historically we have put our trust in the Fourth Estate to analyze, filter and present to an audience. For better or worse, today anybody can call themselves a journalist– if you have page views and social media, you have the foundation for influencing many people who likely won’t question the veracity of what you report.

The notion that media consumers lack perspective and accept the ‘facts’ at face value is old news. With the abundance of data, limited number of data-oriented journalists who possess domain understanding and the overall challenge in holding attention of a reader we’re in for more of the ‘post-truth’ era. In the context of decision making, statistically literacy (aka innumeracy) might even be a bigger problem then basic literacy!

What to do? The journalism community first cried out for statistical education over one hundred years ago and it still has not happened– as of 2016 about 50% of journalism programs offer no data journalism courses. Pretty shoddy, but rather than being negative and critical, here’s what the rest of us can to to increase statistical literacy:

  • Don’t get sucked into consuming news via Facebook; seek to understand issues from a variety of perspectives. Your cocktail party action will likely pick up as a result of you better understanding the other side’s argument.
  • Read Innumeracy in the quiet of your own home to understand the questions you should be asking.
  • Be statistically promiscuous by casually reading about statistics in action. Watch a lecture or two of anything to do with data science. Simply having the ability to ask what confidence interval was used is secret code to have a chat about things that most non-technical types would ignore.
  • Do not accept ‘the math’ hook, line and sinker. The magical language of a data scientist might be uncomfortable to some, but learn to engage and make them explain their process, assumptions and techniques in a way you understand.

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