Sea of Data

I’ve seen quite a bit lately about the Internet age and the huge piles of data it produces.  The latest issue of Wired had an article about hunch.com, which is essentially moving towards social networking through data-mining, though their focus is on creating product recommendations.  The issue before that talked about data-driven Parkinson’s research sponsored by 23andme and Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google.  And on the other side of the coin, I’ve also been reading various articles on quackwatch.com, and many modern scams are based on data mining – or, more accurately, by emphasizing outlying data points and meaningless correlations and relying on the public’s poor understanding of statistics.

It’s an interesting age we’re in.  It’s never been so easy to find information, good or bad, about anything.  Perhaps schools need to spend more time covering statistics (especially the idea of compounding factors) and the scientific process – which probably means less time on basic skills that are being increasingly outsourced to computers, which raises other issues.  But a solid understanding of stats and logic could literally save lives.

I’m actually rather puzzled as to why so few people seem to understand these vital concepts in the first place.  The scientific process should already be part of elementary education.  The placebo effect, compounding factors, the relationship between correlation and causation….these are not difficult to understand.  They aren’t even difficult to test for, which I know is a common issue.  So why aren’t they taught more?  I’m rather mystified.

It’s not as if the endless data is a bad thing.  Used properly it’s an opportunity for really cool discoveries and applications.  But it has to be used properly.

At any rate, that’s why I intend to focus more on the rules of analysis when I’m teaching Beauty.  She can look up trivia easily enough, but a solid understanding of what is and what isn’t a valid argument is irreplaceable.  So I hope to discuss logical arguments and design double-blind studies and let the capital of Portugal worry about itself.

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