The first thing you learn in the training and/or practice of Quantitative Methods (aka statistics) is to be highly suspect of raw data. You know, like gas station sushi. Generally speaking you need to be highly mindful of the behavior of data, including variables such as the size of the data sample vs. total population, correlation, extrapolation, deviation, etc. Because, as my favorite professor of QM would be fond of reminding us, “garbage in, garbage out”.
Some of you may have heard of a statistics term called Standard Deviation (SD). I won’t get into its excruciating details, but just be aware that many statistical analyses thrown your way deviate more than two data points away from their respective assumptions. Why two? Because one is the loneliest number, duh. But stay with me: standard deviations technically make the base assumptions mildly contaminated, if you will. Yes, I use “contaminated” very consciously here, in these times of pandemic. Assumption contamination, the inevitable erosion of a hypothesis, is something I’m sure you’ve heard footnoted as “margin of error”. Most of you have experienced this dissonance in political polling, aka The Art of Manipulation (with all due respect to good guys like Nate Silver).
THAT BEING SAID. If there was ever a time to be BOTH tuned into AND guarded of statistics in the same breath, the day has finally arrived. Let’s just say that 2020 will most likely be known as the year we all became a little wiser. Whether you’re predisposed to look at the glass... nay, at the DATA half-full or half-empty, we will all be a little smarter at the other end of the curve. When all else fails, apparently suffering is that overload trigger that switches on a brave new forced behavior in life. I would have gone for pleasure as that trigger, but hey. Nobody asked me. Perhaps in THAT parallel universe, evolution was completed in about a WEEK (insert eye roll emoji here).
Whether you know it or not, and whether you like it or not, there are two exponential forces at this moment shaping your destiny: one is SCIENCE, and the other... no, it’s not love. It’s not family, religion, or politics either, as powerful as those forces are. Those forces are constants in life, not exponential. That second exponential force forging your destiny at this moment is a crazy little thing called SOCIAL MEDIA.
If you don’t believe Social Media is an ever-increasing force in your life, you might want to reconsider. Consider what it has done to what we used to call the Fourth Estate - aka The Press, or Journalism. Down to its knees the once-mighty Fourth Estate went. Suddenly arch-enemied as the MAINSTREAM Media, its Goliath-like relevance is now pitied against any David with a laptop, WiFi, and a clever slingshot of manipulated data.
Which of course brings us to that curious little word that is changing your life like a magnitude 9 earthquake. You might have heard it very recently referred to as Big Data or Data Mining, by the Captains of Industry and their army of merchants. Nothing wrong in principle that it was capitalism which brought the power of data to the forefront, even more so than science. Whatever it takes, evolution doesn’t care. But, alas, what do we have here: between capitalism and science, guess which one is not on its knees at this moment...
In SCIENCE, most researchers report the STANDARD DEVIATION of experimental data. By scientific convention, only data points that are more than two standard deviations away from a “NULL” expectation (the base assumption) are considered “significant”. Mind you, that null point is still a hypothesis. Think of it as the presumed innocent in a trial, until otherwise proven guilty.
SOCIAL MEDIA for its part works with an equal but opposite force: most posters report based on highly emotional triggers and bias confirmation binges. By social media convention, only data points with zero standard deviation from an assumption are considered (period, never mind “significant”). At the end of the evening, when all smart phones go down on that night stand... If the data don’t fit, you must acquit.
A deadly virus, not love, is in the air. I mean, some may argue that love will kill you sooner rather than later as well, but I digress. A killer pathogen is in your neighborhood, one that floats like an invisible butterfly, stings like the motherfucking grim reaper. So it is unequivocally a great thing that we have a sufficiently developed science at this stage in the game of evolution. Science, as we speak, is looking at the data objectively. It is desperately seeking standard deviations above and beyond that second loneliest number. Relentlessly, until the hypothesis is either discarded or PROVEN. Then and only then will science set you free.
Until then, enjoy Social Media - aka the New Mainstream. Share data if you must. But if you do, please understand what a null expectation is, and what standard deviation means. If you don’t that’s OK, but please, please-please: until we DO understand those things better, let’s all stick to the comic section of that last-man-standing newspaper we call The Daily Facebook.