Don’t blame the data.

It's the storytelling that matters.

7th September 2020

 

From travel restrictions to local lockdowns, from social-distancing to mandatory face-coverings, our lives increasingly appear to be determined by data. Yet, as this summer’s exam results fiasco shows, data alone cannot provide answers to complex human problems. Here, Joe Nutt argues:

  • An unhealthy obsession with data has plagued our education system for decades
  • A determination to maintain statistical equivalence with previous years exam results rode roughshod over individual attainment
  • Too often, a dependency on data is mistaken for wisdom
  • Data is not neutral but the product of biased human instruction
  • We need to switch our focus from data to the stories we tell about it

 

One of the most egregious misjudgements arising from political responses to the pandemic has been what has happened to annual school examinations. In an effort to maintain a public sense of system-wide trust and accuracy, the educational and consequently the career interests of thousands of individual children, were ignored. In effect, politicians decided to use historical data on whole school exam performance as a proxy measure for the exam performance of individual children. 

While many were initially awarded grades largely in line with their expectations, this decision also meant that many hard-working, capable children in poorly performing schools were necessarily given grades that reflected the school they attended. Their own academic ability and effort over years was swept aside, so that adult politicians could appear to be maintaining the wider system. A system whose only goal is the education of individual children, forgot that was its entire purpose.  

That the SNP were the first to acknowledge this mistake is hardly to their credit but it signals something of major significance few commentators have yet to understand. We have to stop an obsession with data that has plagued the education system for decades and that always marginalises individual children and their futures, in favour of generating data for adults already in jobs. It poisons everything from league tables to educational research. Columns of statistics in red, amber or green and acronyms like PP (Pupil Premium) become lazy substitutes for dealing with real children. But education is only the hi-vis victim of a much deeper, cultural malaise. 

Worshiping the God of Technology

I read a lot of articles, on all kinds of topics, that essentially follow the same pattern. The author reflects on recent events, refers to data that supports their argument and finally draws some conclusions they hope will persuade the reader their insight has value in a world increasingly characterised by doubt, conflict and uncertainty. These can be about science, economics, education, politics; the subject matter is irrelevant because the strategy is always the same. Microsoft doesn’t yet offer writers and journalists a template for this, but it won’t be long, because if there is one thing writers have failed to fully grasp, it’s how the technology they use to practice their craft has had a profound impact on the craft itself. 

You need a degree of perspective to appreciate this. I began my working life before computers were ubiquitous in offices and was midway through it when a friend working in a Californian university introduced me to something radically new that she was using, together with only a handful of other university colleagues, called email. Besides being a professional writer, I’ve actually worked in technology sales and seen first-hand how global technology business thinks and acts. When these businesses talk about ethics and technology what I hear is a skilled marketing professional doing a good job. 

Technology has one natural advantage over all sorts of other products: novelty. The constant drive within the industry to find new ways to do existing things, or new things to do, is a gift to sales and marketing teams. When your industry relies on a five-year life cycle you are never selling the same old tat. But this relentless innovation has a truly devastating downside for the consumer, who is inevitably forced to ride a treadmill promising progress. The core problem being that all that progress is entirely technologically determined. Consumers, the flesh and blood creatures who are supposed to benefit from all this newness, are ignored or marginalised. We are all forced to play constant catch-up, trapped on a running machine with buttons just out of our reach, which ups its speed the moment we look like making enough of a special effort to reach out and press stop. 

The time has come for us all to press stop. 

Mistaking data for wisdom

The first step is for writers to recognise what is going on. Writers of all those articles on education, politics, culture, economics, the environment, indeed every imaginable topic which occupies thoughtful minds in the present era, need to grasp that the technology industry is fuelled not by entrepreneurialism or capital investment, but by data. Even the machines that run the international currency market trade in data, not international currencies. A computer that can’t collate and generate data is like a prisoner in solitary confinement, isolated and locked away from the rest of its kind, unable to function as its designer intended. Instead of a handful of white lines, scratched periodically by a human hand on the wall to signify the passing of lost days, a computer in solitary confinement would plaster every square inch of every surface with a blinding series of 1s and 0s spewed out at impossible speed, second by second. No computer is an island. 

Anywhere human beings gather to discuss or debate, to further their knowledge or the knowledge of others, this innate characteristic of technology, this dependency on data, has been mistaken for wisdom. The industry has relentlessly and effectively sold the lie that data is somehow uniquely neutral, that it resides in some special, ethereal universe all of its own, eternally untainted and pure. All that we need to do is buy the machines to generate it. It is no accident that the earliest consumer products of this new technological era were calculators. Mathematics is the only human endeavour which commonly satisfies our desire for truth. 

Science enthusiastically embraced the technology message because, like mathematicians, scientists believe passionately in their ability to identify significant truths and fix them forever in the realm of fact. It is impossible to do justice to the way human beings have benefitted from the efforts of scientists over the ages, but there is an ever-decreasing degree of public confidence in discoverable facts once you start to move away from conventional science into education, psychology, history or economics, or my own area of expertise, literature, because even novelists and poets claim they are truth seekers. 

Yet technology operates in all of these fields in exactly the same, omnipotent way, selling data as neutral evidence, as pure, inviolable fact. 

Rethinking the relationship between data and knowledge

I can think of no better illustration of just how false this sales pitch is, than how scientists and politicians have responded to the threat of a pandemic. If there is one thing the general population will have learned from witnessing daily performances by leading scientists and political leaders these past few months, all with their bewildering array of graphs and statistics, it is to place less trust in both professions. Jointly, they could not even agree on who was most at risk or how to record the numbers of people dying. They still cannot agree whether wearing a face mask is a healthy decision or a vain placebo. There may have been a shortage of PPE equipment but no one could possibly claim they were short of data. Yet this obscene wealth of technologically-generated data sowed far more doubt and confusion than confidence and unity. 

This is because it is not the data that matters, it is the stories we tell with it. Stories we tell, for example, about children’s exam results. This is all we need to know to press that stop button and climb off the treadmill. 

We all have to rethink the part data plays in our knowledge of the world, and our small part in it. We need to switch our focus from the data to the story someone is telling about it. Instead of imagining data as something neutral, something with independent force and authority, we need to understand once and for all that there is no such thing and never has been. We need to think of data in much the same way we think of language: it’s just another medium that writers use, to communicate their own thoughts and ideas to us. Data does not invest any argument with greater force or value merely because it is data. We need to understand that even generating and collating data is a subjective act, every bit as dependent on the human mind as interpreting it is. Machines do not make choices without human instruction and those instructions are subject to individual or, at best, team preferences, bias and predispositions. Data does not flow untainted from some translucent spring on Mount Helicon, it’s dirtied by the hands of all those who requested it. 

Why this story?

We need to focus instead on the quality of the story being told. We need to ask ourselves who is telling it and why? We need to think critically of the data being used to persuade us, in the same way we would respond to the credibility of a metaphor or reject manipulative hyperbole or poisonous invective. A rational demand for better statistical analysis will only ever get us so far, something much more radical and profound is needed, a complete repositioning of statistics and data as inherently subordinate to the story being told. 

That means we need to demand much more awareness from those whose ideas find their way into publications, whether in print or on screen, that it is no longer acceptable to behave as though the numbers speak for themselves. They must be the ones who make the effort to position data correctly, not as the foundation upon which they build an argument, but as a facet of the argument itself. 

It also means politicians, and their closest advisers, need to inform themselves much better about how the technology industry really works. They need to look under the bonnet and ask some challenging questions about their relationship with an industry they naively worship as both saviour and driver of the economy. How often do you hear a senior political figure chant the mantra that all our futures are indelibly linked to technological progress, that innovation is the mother of all invention?  

If they even knew where the bonnet catch was, they might start to see just how skilful the industry is at generating not just data, but smoke and mirrors. For more than twenty years I have watched technology companies demonstrate products again and again that do not exist yet, or sell something very effectively based on nothing more substantial than some seductive slides and transformational promises, to rooms full of people whose knowledge of the industry is so weak, they simply do not know what questions to ask, senior politicians included. And then they act surprised or disappointed when those big IT projects like Track and Trace inevitably fail to deliver. It is time we all stopped looking through this tinted glass screen darkly. 

 

Joe Nutt is the author of several books about the poetry of Donne, Milton and Shakespeare and a collection of essays, The Point of Poetry. His new book, Teaching English for the Real World was published in May by John Catt. 

 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash