The problem with data

Data is inert.

Data alone doesn’t do anything; it just is. Consider data in terms of Newton’s First Law of Motion:

Data, in a state of uniform motion, will remain in that state of motion unless an external force acts on it.

Simply stated, data alone will not take action unless someone does something with it.

Despite its inert nature, data causes a lot of harm. This is the result of two things.

  1. The ubiquity and availability of data;
  2. How people analyze, synthesize, and ultimately make decisions using data. 

Data is ubiquitous.

Our story begins with the ancient Greek gods Zeus, Prometheus, and Epimetheus. Prometheus and Epimetheus were Titans and brothers. Zeus was king of the gods.

Prometheus wanted to give the gift of fire to humans, but Zeus refused, saying that fire was only for the gods. Prometheus defied Zeus and gave humans fire anyway. Zeus was furious and punished Prometheus with what was supposed to be eternal torture (but he was freed by Heracles—a story for another day). 

Zeus also believed that humans should be punished for accepting the gift of fire from Prometheus against his will. To punish man, Zeus created a woman named Pandora. She was molded to look like the beautiful goddess Aphrodite. She received the gifts of wisdom, beauty, kindness, peace, generosity, and health from the gods.

Zeus brought her to Earth to be Epimetheus’ wife. Even though Epimetheus’ brother, Prometheus, had previously warned him not to accept gifts from the gods, Epimetheus married her anyway.

As a wedding present, Zeus gave Pandora a box but warned her never to open it. Pandora, who was created to be curious, couldn’t stay away from the box and the urge to open the box overcame her.

Horrible things flew out of the box including greed, envy, hatred, pain, disease, hunger, poverty, war, and death. All of life’s miseries had been let out into the world. Pandora slammed the lid of the box back down before the last thing could escape.

The last thing remaining inside of the box was hope.

Ever since that time, humans have been able to hold onto this hope in order to survive the wickedness that Pandora had let out.

“Pandora’s Box” represents things that are best left untouched, for fear of what might come out of it.

The Internet opened a modern-day Pandora’s Box.

The invention of the Internet opened Pandora’s Box when it made it easy to create and spread content at scale. This released a whole new set of evils, including misinformation, polarization, “fake news,” confusion, and supercharging the already strong and present confirmation bias for masses of people. The “hope” is that we can learn to decipher the quality of data so we can become a better human race.

Nearly all the sources of the information that we seek out to consume are inherently flawed because the feed into our innate desire to confirm our existing beliefs. 

The ease at which we share and consume data is problematic.

A mere thirty years ago, if you had wanted to research something, you would have to go to the library and dig into books, journals, or even an encyclopedia. And although there is a raging debate today on the quality of some published research and the issues surrounding replication in academic studies, the peer review process does preserve the integrity of research.

The fact is, the printed sources of old had some inherent editorial protections in place, i.e. editors, a peer-review process, etc. Although these protections do exist on some level on the Internet (sometimes), they are mitigated by the speed at which we can access data.

The research process in the past inherently forced people to slow down and consider the data they were consuming.

Today, you can access a world of information from your phone or personal computer in seconds.

On the other side of the equation, any schmuck can put up a website and start publishing articles on anything. There are absolutely no protections in place to ensure the news or data is accurate. Making matters worse is that people can “like,” “share,” or otherwise post anything on social media.

In minutes, misinformation can spread like wildfire.

Humans are inherently biased to seek things they like.

This is why Conservatives will naturally flock to Fox News and Liberals will naturally flock to CNN without questioning what they are being fed.

Imagine this. You are put in front of a television that continuously presents information that you disagree with. How long would you actually sit there? Be honest.

People are naturally disposed to seeking out information that confirms what they believe and rejecting information that they don’t believe. Also, once somebody’s mind is made up, it is really hard to change. It is almost always easier to form a new idea than change an existing one.

Bad data and misinformation have swayed elections, toppled companies, and destroyed reputations. It has been weaponized to support terrible decisions, present faulty or flawed arguments, influence others, or lay ruin and destroy people and things.

Wrong or bad information and data is dangerous. It is a threat to democracy. It is a threat to good people trying to do the right thing. It is a threat to business. Most importantly, it is a threat to your decision-making processes. 

But not all is lost.

Knowing is half the battle. The other half is action.

We must be vigilant about the information we consume. This vigilance must be increased when we share information. Imagine sharing information with your entire company that they were laying off 50% of their workforce; and that information turned out to be wrong. Imagine the damage this could cause.

Consider the source. Remember, people share things that are bullshit all the time. It is as easy as clicking of a button to spread something across the world.

Next time you read a comment on a newsfeed, read an article, watch a news show, or consume any information—question it. Don’t take it at face value. Don’t take it as truth. Instead, find another source. Better yet, find a competing source. Maybe it will validate your thinking. Maybe it will give you pause, i.e. allow you to question your thinking. Either way, it will slow you down enough to switch your thinking from automatic and emotional to rational.

Finally, consider the motives behind the information. Everybody has a reason for sharing something. This matters.

So now, going forward, what are you going to do to vet your information?

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