Data, Shmata

On my bad days, when I’m wavering in my faith that humans have any air of rationality, I often begin to have a creeping fear that we have become allergic to data and evidence. And I don’t just mean that we avoid science. I mean in our everyday lives. Here’s an example. As I was logging into my WordPress account today I noticed on the homepage a blog post about Jonathan Franzan’s top 10 writing tips. I read the post, smiled, and reflected for a few moments. Noticing the blog’s author had written a related article about Franzan’s The Corrections, and having thought about picking up the book for several months now, I clicked on the link.

Several paragraphs into the post was this claim:

“Second, reviews on The Corrections from non book critics (read: normal people like you and me) are mixed. Take one look at The Corrections on Amazon and you’ll see what I mean. It’s a three-star novel with more than 1,000 reviews. Why is it three stars? People either really love it or really hate it.”

I hear these sorts of declarations made quite often. “Either you’ll love his sense of humor, or you’ll hate it.”  “Either you love her beff stroganoff, or you hate it.” “Either you’ll read this book in a single night, or you’ll throw it down in disgust after the first five pages.”  I’ve never been one to buy into such extreme pronouncements so I decided to mozy on over to Amazon and take a look at this book’s customer reviews.

If we assign “really love it” a review of 5 stars and a “really hate it” a review of 1 star and do a little math we’ll learn that 55% of people either love this book or hate it, while 45% have some ambivalence toward it. Far from the claim that The Corrections is either loved or hated, only slightly more than half of readers harbor such strong convictions regarding the novel.

I don’t mean to pick on what seems like a well intentioned blog (the author is reading all 100 of Time Magazine‘s greatest English-speaking novels since 1923, a glorious and praiseworthy effort); and perhaps a few of you will write my complaint off as pedantic. But I still think it matters.

The example above is but one case of what has become (or maybe always was) an aversion to hard evidence. That we don’t calculate the percentage of people who feel a particular way toward a novel before writing a blog post is of no import. The larger point is that, far from staying neutral on topics we know little about, we transform into raconteurs—waxing lyrical, compelled to have an opinion one way or the other on every topic at hand—all the while ignoring the solid terra firma of the measurable and real as it sinks further and further away beneath our feet.

The question, “How do people on Amazon feel about The Corrections?”, like many other questions in life, has an answer (at least in part). Many of the riddles that confront our everyday lives do not. To treat that which is fact as merely a matter of opinion—or worse, to treat that which is unknowable as something that can be made real simply by will of conviction—is to infuse into the genuine a spurious nonsense. It is to give credence to intentions, hopes, and desires while discounting outcomes, history, and evidence.  It is to bake a pie made of lies—an American Lie Pie—and try to force others to eat it.

The more we make such unwarranted claims in our daily discourse, the lazier our brains become, the more susceptible we become to specious professions, and the more we view data and evidence as the banal details that should be relegated to science labs and courtrooms. I also believe it is partly at fault for our blind adherence to our own ideology.

We are creatures of habit, running in the same circles of friends week after week, watching the same news programs, reading the same websites. The claims we make and hear from others get batted around unchallenged, slipping into conversation as easily as laughter or talk of the weather. True or not, our allegations to one another become reality. So much so that we are jarred when we are confronted with anything different. So enraptured in what we know to be “true” we respond with vitriol and indignation; only then does our scientific mind suddenly jolt to life, demanding from those who have challenged us every scrap of data and evidence on the subject hand. And even then we are likely not to believe.

We may not be able to pause for mathematical calculations or deep research with every lackadaisical comment we make. But we can stop and think, the next time we say something, “I wonder if that is true”. If there is a computer nearby maybe we can look up the answer. We can choose not to speak about the many things for which we have no knowledge, or when we do, we can state them as a matter of opinion, noting that we could easily be wrong. We can understand that on many issues there are multiple sources of data, often conflicting, and in these cases we can talk about the relative merits of each rather than discounting completely the side which contradicts our sensibilities. On matters that are settled, we can follow the evidence, even if it disagrees with what we want to believe. Or at the very least we can say, “Sorry, I understand where you’re coming from and understand your evidence, but I’m biased on the subject. Even if you’re right my heart won’t let me agree.”


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