We are enamored with metrics and data. Madison Avenue marketers are specialists in providing convincing statistics about products and businesses. People discuss their blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and other medical numbers as if they described the essence of their lives. Politicians use opinion polls to mold their words. And of course the quality of a school or your child’s ability and future are reduced to simplistic test scores.
This all nice and neat – everything in life down to numbers. It’s all seems so scientific, rational and objective. We think they are free of bias and prejudice. Inarguable truth! The numbers seemingly communicate objectivity and certainty. But do they — really?
Data collection and interpretation must undergo ethical checks and tests because data can be deceiving. After all, it is turned into information, which is then used to make judgments and decisions. Just because information and conclusions are wrapped in numbers does not make them any truer than written stories or arguments. Data can be used to lie, present false conclusions, or skew arguments to one’s point of view.
The book Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception, describes the way data can be manipulated unethically. Here are some deceptions.
— Cherry picking: A common deceptive is cherry-picking, which is selecting data that support your position or argument while underplaying or ignoring data that oppose it. In essence, you don’t give the whole picture or tell the whole truth. Selective use of data is prevalent in politics and unfortunately in schools too.
— Disestimation: Because of how we view them, we fall prey to believing numbers and statistics are an absolute truth. We ignore any uncertainties that surround them and their collection. Simplistic numbers are not always accurate or truthful in assessing the complexities of life or people. Intangibles like creativity, love, and commitment cannot be reduced to a simplistic metric. Neither can commitment, loyalty, justice, beauty, liberty or other principle or value.
— Potemkin numbers: These numbers look like data, present like accurate data, but are built on a facade. In essence, Potemkin numbers are phony statistics based on incorrect or nonexistent calculations. The presenter or the figment of a nonsensical measurement makes them up. Schemers use this strategy because they know our penchant to believe numerical data, even if they are made-up.
— Comparing apples and oranges: Educators should be fully versed on this ethical breech. Test scores are frequently used for comparing student achievement. In comparing the performance of two groups, the two groups must have the same characteristics. The ethical problem is comparing the performance of two distinct groups and drawing conclusions as if the groups were similar in characteristics. That is why statistics between charter schools and public schools are difficult to sort out. If the samples of students tested are not same, then we are comparing oranges to grapefruits — they are all citrus, but quite different.
— Charts and graphs: Data are frequently presented in charts and graphs. There is nothing inherently ethically wrong with them, as long as the data are not cherry-picked, Potemkin numbers, or false comparisons. However, accurate data can be presented in a graph and chart and be deceptive if the left axis is manipulated to show larger or smaller gains – bigger gains or smaller losses.
Numbers are not always cold, hard facts. They can become deceptive through unethical comparisons, presentation, or falsehoods. As educators, we must guard against being deceived through the techniques above that result in lies, fabrications, or half-truths. People have motives, and those motives can distort the collection, interpretation, and presentation of data.