‘Can We Trust the Numbers?’

February 2018

This is Anne’s February installation of what we’re reading, watching and listening to.

Image via Lifehacker.com

I recently worked for months on a big project for a client in healthcare IT. It was based on an extensive survey of current, select practices by clinicians, clinical informaticists and IT managers. It involved a lot of data crunching and more than one meeting to go over those data points.

What struck me in the course of creating an infographic and an extensive white paper from those survey results was how statistics were interpreted differently by the subject matter experts I interviewed. No one was wrong, yet no one seemed to see findings the exact same way. This reminded me of a recent Ted Radio Hour program I heard the other week while running errands. Thus, I’m starting off my February “Recommendations for What to See, Hear and Listen To” list with that show.

[listen] ‘Can We Trust The Numbers?  If you can’t listen to the entire Jan. 27 program, then at least listen to the segment of the TED Radio Hour’s show “Can We Trust the Numbers?” featuring Alan Smith of The Financial Times. Smith once worked for the U.K. equivalent of the U.S. Census Bureau and realized people’s perceptions of the world often misalign with statistics. He noted one instance in which 100 representative U.K. citizens were asked what percentage of their nation were Muslims. Those surveyed said 24%; actual census data said it’s 5%. A similarly chosen group of Saudis were asked how many people in their country were overweight. They guessed 25%; in reality, health data shows it to be closer to 75%. Think about those disparities and others mentioned in the show the next time someone cites a figure you believe to be intuitively wrong.

[read] Give me a minute to think. . . . In that radio segment, Smith mentioned the work of Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, which provides me an opportunity to plug one of the best books I’ve read in years: Thinking, Fast and Slow. It’s all about why we think the way we do and what can be done to build more trust in the information we process, and therefore foster greater trust among us. It starts with slowing down to think more deliberatively and logically – something easier said than done in today’s fast-paced world.

[read] One of my favorite people to interview. . . .One of my favorite interviews shortly after I shifted my journalistic focus from humanity at large to the cyber world was with John Perry Barlow, who passed away at the age of 70 last week. I remember one lengthy talk in particular; he was on a train and we twice got disconnected. He was already regarded as a luminary, and most people of his stature wouldn’t bother trying to track down my number — let alone call me back twice. But he did. That grace, along with his many literary gifts and dedication to privacy, will always be remembered by me.

[watch] Even working together, we never got past Q7. Sticking with the theme of numbers, statistics and data points, my recommendation for what to watch is HQ Trivia, a smartphone-based live trivia game I discovered over the holidays when my family pooled our mental resources to try and best millions of other trivia enthusiasts. I’m aware that this type of app feeds into the growing problem of smartphone addiction and is not without controversy. The host also can be a little annoying at times. And those with limited data plans should carefully monitor use. Still, trying to correctly answer 10 random, multiple-choice questions, even if a payout is questionable, seems a smarter use of time and brainpower than fumbling through celebrity news feeds. Though that practice did help us answer some questions correctly.

[watch] Tigers twirling in excitement. . . . Chances are if you came to this blog post from anywhere except our home page, you missed our newest addition.  Our first video with advice on content is now up and running. Kudos to Maureen, who was behind this project.

Anne