We, as people, like facts. We like the certainty of knowing that what we claim to be true is, in fact, the truth. We like the validation of knowing that the numbers are behind us, and that we are ineffable, because statistical proof is behind us.
The problem is, we aren’t getting data nearly as rock-solid as we think. As a matter of fact, most of the information we take in is skewed, portraying a picture with just enough of the puzzle missing to leave us profoundly lost.
Worst of all, we don’t even know it’s happening. Statistics are shared on a daily, even hourly basis that, without the proper framing, can lead to total catastrophe. The biggest challenge is that the numbers actually DO pan out. The Emory University football team is technically undefeated. That is a fact. The problem is, you aren’t going to necessarily have the information that they are also un-victorious (Emory, you see, doesn’t have a football team).
This is why it is so dangerous for all of the “news” information to be deciminated to an often ignorant public without some context.
Here is an example from this past week: A news article, found on the Washington Post website,shares a study conducted that looks at jogging information taken from the Runkeeper cycling app. The app takes the data from the running routes of users and sets them onto maps of 10 major US cities, as well as a few international selections, to look at where the most popular jogging routes are in major metropolitan areas. This data we can safely say is factual. These maps accurately reflect where people are jogging, according to the application's data.
The article, though, goes on to make a claim. The maps of popular jogging routes appears, according to the Washington Post, to correspond with generally more affluent neighborhoods. There is more tracking in areas where residents are wealthier. The article goes so far as to say “These results are to be expected. People who can afford to do so tend to prefer living near parks and rivers, where runners also like to run.”
The hip, contemporary news outlet Mic attempted to take this information and prove exactly why there is a link between jogging and a financial gap. Because of the lack of running in those areas, there must be a growing obesity problem in America, and it has to be based in the most financially unstable parts of our country. That is, after all, what the data suggests. Right?
Not exactly. What the data suggests is that, those who are using the app tend to run in more affluent areas. That doesn’t take into account that most (if not all) who suffer from financial hardship can’t afford apps on their non-existent smartphones. It doesn’t take into account that only those using this specific app are being taken into account. It doesn’t take into account that the poor could be obese or starving. There is plenty of information here that we simply don’t know.
Another example, also found in the Washington Post, looks at the number of African American friends white people have. The article looks at a study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, which studied the average number of friends a person has based on racial identification. The findings were that white people tend to have 91% white friends and only 1% each of a few other racial identification. African Americans, on the other hand, have, on average, 83% black friends, 8% white friends, and a small numbers of others to round out the other 9 percent. The article goes on to look at the fact that, because of this data, most racial conversations are done with homogeneous groups of people. What could be wrong with that?
Well, at first glance, nothing at all. On second inspection, though, the article fails to take into account that only about 14% of America is African American. Literally, there are fewer black people to know. This doesn’t inherently make the data unusable, it just gives a reader pause.
In each of these examples, the information isn’t wrong. In fact, there is statistical back-up for the claims. But, in reality, the data requires a reader to do some critical thinking and analysis as to how this can be used most accurately in a global context. This information is, of course, not just found in the Washington Post. News outlets everywhere are giving “facts” without all of the context or framing necessary to paint a clear picture.
Is poverty challenging our world? Certainly. Are there issues with obesity in impoverished areas? It is definitely possible. Are there differences in the ways African Americans and White Americans interact in social groups? Sure. But we can’t necessarily run to conclusions about what that really means without first taking a good hard look at how all of the pieces fit together.
People are attempting to diagnose what is wrong with our society. Are there challenges? Most definitely. And there are some things that need our immediate attention. We can do more, do better if we are more accurate in our assessments of what is truly going on and, thus, what we can do to make things better.