Brexit and Burnt Bread: The need to interpret the data responsibly

“Opinion is half way between knowledge and ignorance” Plato

There are a number of ways to deal with fake news or alternative facts but the best way is to appreciate real “experts” in journalism and other areas of life.  The problem is arguably a bigger problem in the UK than in the US as we have had a history of newspapers and traditional media seeing themselves as entertainment rather than news distributors.

The latest story about the carcinogenic qualities of Toast is one of a number of stories that have not been interpreted poorly to sell papers, this is different from the stories about Arctic conditions in parts of Scotland (Aberdeen is under 700 miles from the Artic Circle so this is unsurprising), as the report behind it is clearly evidence based and the risk to humans was reported as minimal.

The predictions for Brexit based on the evidence was that the vote was too close to call (even if the poll of polls and confidence levels attached to most polls was mathematically garbage), yet this was not the interpretation widely reported.

The solutions suggested are bizarre – there seems to be an increasing demand for case studies and use of anecdotal evidence on the ground (the worst type of convenience sampling), the denigration/undermining of all experts and blaming social media for creating a market for “click bait” even though this is based on a well-known trick from headline writers.

The solution is not just looking at information put before them in terms of numbers after all 2.4 million US respondents to a survey in 1936 confidently predicted a landslide for Landon over Roosevelt, when the reverse was true.  Numbers do not speak for themselves when the sample is skewed. One element why Nate Silver misinterpreted the data was that his algorithms were fighting the 2102 election and the game, as well as pollsters weightings had changed.

Expecting readers to be sophisticated consumers of information is not always possible, particularly when statistics are not taught to any level in schools but those that interpret the evidence should have the skills.

Understanding what the numbers mean and whether or not those numbers are robust are the very least that we should expect from journalists.

I was shocked as I was writing this piece (or rant) as to how it could be used to describe marketers rather than journalists.  Marketing is where journalism may be heading – a polarisation between the opinionated and evidenced, eventually marketers who ignore the evidence are found out as they are ineffective – the worry is that the better the journalism the less effective it is.

GK Chesterton is alleged to have said, “When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.”

I am not suggested a theocracy but I do believe it might be time to revisit Plato – afterall he  distinguished between knowledge (episteme) and opinion (doxa).  He did also point out

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