Beware the Data!

Something that seems to get broad support among policy people is government collecting more data and using new statistics to “inform” the public, politicians, and researchers. After all, knowing more helps us to be good consumers, right?

Maybe, but that doesn’t outweigh the myriad pitfalls of politicians and other people having more statistics to abuse.

The biggest danger is one we should have learned about from K-12 education. The No Child Left Behind Act requires that all parents be told whether their children are “proficient” in math and reading, and whether their schools are making “adequate yearly progress” toward all kids hitting proficiency. The only problem? –There are actually many, but the biggest is that most states have defined “proficiency” at levels that are, generally speaking, anything but. So parents have new information, but it is, essentially, a lie.

Then there’s the problem of cherry-picking data. Who hasn’t heard wailing over the decreasing percentage of funding for public colleges that has come from states? Seemingly anyone who wants more taxpayer dough in the Ivory Tower uses that stat to suggest that schools have had their funding “cut to the bone.” But they haven’t – for the most part other revenue sources have just grown faster. It’s not unlike complaining that your salary as a percentage of your income has dropped after winning the lottery.

Finally, there’s the problem of data being used to narrow what we are allowed to choose. Again, look at K-12 education, where there is an obsession with standardized testing. The danger is that what can easily be tested is not the whole – or perhaps even a large part – of a good education, but because it seems more concrete it is what we focus on. Indeed, East Asian nations are consistently the highest scorers on international exams, and we are warned repeatedly that we must either catch up or suffer. But in terms of economic growth and happiness – basically the two main things people hope to use education to achieve – the United States has often outshone countries that have beaten us on test scores. And many East Asian nations are trying very hard to get away from their grinding, test-obsessed systems to move toward systems that inculcate fuzzy, but real, things like “critical thinking.”

Unfortunately, the natural bias is to focus on things that you can measure and, if you are a politician, reduce to a sound bite that sounds authoritative because there is a number attached to it. But like colorful pills, data can be useful when used properly, but are also deceptively – and dangerously – innocent looking.


Cross-posted at