Is all the truth we need in the data?
Although it seems savvy to defer to “the data,” the devil is in the mixed details. For example, humans on average have one testicle and one ovary.
Is all the truth we need found in the numbers? Can the stats always chart a better course? Although it seems savvy to defer to “the data,” the devil is in the details.
1. “Eliminating all police bias,” calculates Sendhil Mullainathan (The New York Times) wouldn’t materially reduce police killings of African-Americans. Nationally, African-American = 28.9 percent of arrestees vs. 31.8 percent of police-shooting victims. If racism “were a big factor,” Mullainathan would expect “a larger gap.”
2. That’s a common stats weakness. The national data hide huge variations — 70 police forces arrest African-Americans at rates 10 times higher than other groups. In such places, the national stats are irrelevant. Stats help when they’re representative of the particulars. Otherwise the satanically slippery stats can mislead even experts (e.g., Mullainathan, and responses here and there miss the main relevance issue).
3. Here’s a medical example — Stephen J. Gould’s “The Median Isn’t The Message.” He knew his cancer’s median mortality of eight months didn’t necessarily mean he’d “probably be dead in eight months." His particulars weren’t well-represented by the stats. He lived another 20 years.
4. More funnily... mixed types can mangle data — humans on average have one testicle and one ovary.
6. “Evidence-based” medicine’s Randomized Clinical Trials (RCT) can’t “even in principle” always deliver. RCTs “return average effects.” Great for sufficiently homogenous populations, but riskier with subpopulations of differing types/responses. Larger samples with inhomogeneous types can weaken relevance (Mullainathan above).
7. Human behavior varies more than human physiology, suggesting RCT issues in social sciences (e.g., economies have inhomogeneous behavioral mechanisms/processes).
8. Statistics, crucial to science, are also perhaps its “tragic ... flaw.” Relying on the “statistical significance” recipe doesn’t ensure real-world importance (and not everything is bell-curved). Bad stats and other data biases contribute to ills in many fields (e.g., neuroscience, psychology, economics). Heaven help journalists (or these earthier volunteers).
9. Even plain, un-statistical numbers can lose context and real-world sense logic, causing “spreadsheet madness” — Larry Summers knows experts who’d argue electricity is “4 percent of the economy,” so losing much of it couldn’t hurt. Dollars especially can seem too easily comparable — risking “the spice error,” small factors ≠ unimportant.
10. Tools must match the domain. Stats excel in physics, where behaviors are stable (nothing in physics chooses). But people aren’t biological billiard balls. Our games are complicated by our choosing and changing how we choose.
11. Sports are simpler than economics and life. And we know stats in sports aren’t a sure bet. Sports and life are too polycausal (see oli- vs. poly-causal sciences). High “causal density” can subvert the utility of stats.
12. Turning the world into numbers is tricky. Never forget what the numbers really refer to.
Numbers have no monopoly on precision or truth. We’ll always need non-numerical logic (the quality of quantitative reasoning rests on good qualitative distinctions).
Many of life’s patterns remain beyond “the numbers.”
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions
Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.
- Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
- At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
- Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Can sensitive coral reefs survive another human generation?
- Coral reefs may not be able to survive another human decade because of the environmental stress we have placed on them, says author David Wallace-Wells. He posits that without meaningful changes to policies, the trend of them dying out, even in light of recent advances, will continue.
- The World Wildlife Fund says that 60 percent of all vertebrate mammals have died since just 1970. On top of this, recent studies suggest that insect populations may have fallen by as much as 75 percent over the last few decades.
- If it were not for our oceans, the planet would probably be already several degrees warmer than it is today due to the emissions we've expelled into the atmosphere.
They didn't know it, but the rituals of Iron Age Scandinavians turned their iron into steel.
- Iron Age Scandinavians only had access to poor quality iron, which put them at a tactical disadvantage against their neighbors.
- To strengthen their swords, smiths used the bones of their dead ancestors and animals, hoping to transfer the spirit into their blades.
- They couldn't have known that in so doing, they actually were forging a rudimentary form of steel.
Michael Dowling, Northwell Health's CEO, believes we're entering the age of smart medicine.
- The United States health care system has much room for improvement, and big tech may be laying the foundation for those improvements.
- Technological progress in medicine is coming from two fronts: medical technology and information technology.
- As information technology develops, patients will become active participants in their health care, and value-based care may become a reality.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.