Walking Diary

By Hsu Shen On

Data analysis

April 2020 · 4 minute read

In today‘s world data is super important, those who have a lot of it become successful, like Google, Facebook, Amazon. The more data you have the better knowledge you have and so decision making becomes easier. For example, when a lot of people buy a product on Amazon, Amazon will get the information firstly to stock more of that product, secondly, since that kind of product is very popular, so introduce more of the same in the Store.

Individually also we must consume as much information(data) as we can. We live in an era where we have an abundance of it. We are constantly bombarded with it from everywhere. The Internet, the smartphone have made it possible for the free flow of data.

It is good we have a lot of data but equally important part is how you interpret it. A person can look at a set of data and interpret it differently than others. What is real, what is fake, how do you decide. Trump has made popular the term ‘fake news’. It has become far too easy to spread fake as real, and real as fake cause most people are not doing enough critical analysis of the data they are being given. They instead just trust the source. So a Trump supporter will believe whatever he says even if it is ridiculous.

Let me give an example of data interpretation and why it is important. A few months ago I went to church, and the priest gave a sermon. Generally, like many people, it is hard for me to pay close attention to what the priest is saying, my head goes to someplace else after some time :). Every once in a while you will find a preacher saying something interesting. This was that time, the priest was able to get my attention from the very beginning by the way he talked. He was a very good speaker.

In one part of his sermon, he said and I am paraphrasing here, that from one study the growth from the year 2010 to 2015 of ‘common-law marriage’ (a marriage without a civil or ecclesiastical ceremony, generally resulting from an agreement to marry followed by the couple’s living together.) has been 80% while normal marriage has been 40%. If you listen to it without thinking much, it looks like people just living together has become much more than who is getting married. Since the person speaking here is a priest, this is very bad news. Also, he is an important person to his listener, most people take it in and believe it.

The issue with that interpretation is this, the comparison is not correct unless you provide more context to it. Since the number of ‘common-law marriages’ against ‘normal marriage’ is very small, it will grow at a much faster rate than ‘normal marriage’. Here is an example with numbers. Say in 2010 the number of ‘common-law marriages’ was 10, and the number of ‘normal marriages’ was 1000. In 2015 the number of ‘common-law marriages’ was 18, that is 8 more people got added to it, which makes it an 80% growth. And similarly, in 2015 the number of ‘normal marriages’ was 1400, that is 400 more people got added to it, which makes it a 40% growth. So if you just look at the growth rate and compare the two, 80% is so much more than 40%, but in fact, in the 5 years ‘common-law marriages’ increased by 8 and ‘normal marriages’ increased by 400.

So the context here is important, I am not saying the priest is deliberately misleading his congregation. He may have been sincere in his approach, but failed to give more context to those numbers. But this is not always true for most people/organizations, we are constantly being fed some data/news to deliberately mislead us. What is important is to learn to do critical thinking (analysis of the data), don’t just accept whatever is being told to us.

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