Everydata: The Misinformation Hidden in the Little Data You Consume Every Day
May 09, 2016
John Johnson and Mike Gluck have written a fascinating and highly entertaining examination of how we consume data.
After reading Everydata, I have come to the conclusion that people who have their first name as part of their last name write great books. John Johnson would be both pleased and disappointed with that assessment.
We live in what you might call a data-rich environment, an age of information saturation. Johnson and his coauthor, Mike Gluck, have written the best book I have found on how to parse that data and information. A book about how to consume data may sound a bit boring, but it is entirely engrossing and entertaining from the start. First off, it is broken up into headings that are generally about one page long, so it moves really fast. Also, being a book about how we consume information and process it, it is basically an exploration of the very building blocks of how we think, which is fascinating. And finally, it contains deliberately odd, fanciful, and entertaining topics like if eating grilled cheese improves our sex lives. It does not. But you may be forgiven for thinking that it does if you read the Huffington Post article on how "Grilled Cheese Lovers Have More Sex and Are Better People."
And that brings us to just one of the problems with interpreting the world around us, which in a nutshell, is that:
Every day, you're surrounded by media reports and other sources that are often filled with hidden information—and misinformation.
Donald Rumsfeld was on to something when he told us there are "known knowns," "known unknowns," and "unknown unknowns"—that there are, in fact, "unknown knowns," or "things you think you know, that it turns out you did not."
"Facts don't always have the power to change our minds," said an article in the Boston Globe. "In fact, quite the opposite." The article cited a study that found people who were misinformed often held fast to their beliefs; some even felt more strongly in their (false) beliefs when faced with facts.
Here we could most likely insert a joke at Donald Rumsfeld's behalf, but I will instead just say that there are many dangers in how we gather, weigh, and interpret the data and information around us. For instance, we tend to place outsized importance on anecdotal evidence, even in the face of facts that contradict them. This is why a friend of mine, when I told him of a study suggesting the greatest indicator of whether one smokes or not is if their parents did, will tell me he does not believe that's true because of specific people he knows in which that is not the case. But even when we have robust data, and what we might consider the facts, we have to remember that even the data and facts we have are incomplete. For instance, one of the most robust information gathering processes in the world, the U.S. Census, is deeply flawed:
As the Census Bureau says on its own website: "In a Census, some people are not counted." As Time magazine reported, "The 1990 cenuses missed an estimated 8 million people—mostly immigrants and urban minorities—and it managed to double-count 4 million white Americans"
That has real effects in how resources are allotted and allocated. And that is in a survey that isn't subject to many flaws in other ways of gathering data, like the problems with self-reported data or sampling errors. And, even when the underlying data is good, there can be flaws in our thinking because of how we aggregate or report it, because:
The way in which data is aggregated can mask important variations.
The best way to think of this may be to think of "red states" or "blue states"—which don't really exist. Each state is made up of some people who will vote Republican, and some Democratic, but the way in which that information is totaled and tallied leads to an electoral map that is strictly red and blue, even if the country is actually a wave of purple from coast to coast.
What Johnson and Gluck do is provide all the thinking tools you need to determine what it is you really know and what you really don't. And that is great, because we all have blind spots and biases—in our home lives, businesses, and political views. Each small section of the book exposes some aspect of where there may be error in how information is delivered, or in how we interpret the information we receive and see the world through that interpretation. Johnson and Gluck help us be more intelligent consumers of all the data we're fed every day, to build a better foundation for our beliefs, business, and personal well-being.
I have just scratched the surface of the book here. To see how just entertaining applied statistics and data interpretation can be, and discover "why your gas tank isn't empty, you're not better than average, and Africa is bigger than you think," you need to get yourself a copy of Everydata.
We have 20 copies available.