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  • Writer's pictureMatt Hays

Let's not Misinterpret Data

It's easy to spout a fact from news article. "Seattle was the fastest-growing city in the last decade," for example.

But how often do we share facts out of context? Or use them incorrectly for reports? And how often do our sources themselves misuse information?

In find some basic concepts useful as a reader and when reporting data for others.

1. Always be skeptical. The UW and NYT don't write reports or news articles, people do. Use your lens no matter how much you respect the institution, or the writer.

2. Use past tense. Every statistic is about yesterday or last year, not the moment you're reading it. If a 3/15/21 report is based on 7/1/20 data, say that.

3. Look for the boundaries. Only use clearly-framed facts, and frame them again when you use them. Or share unclear data but say so. (Seattle grew the fastest within city limits, by percentage, among the 50 largest US cities, from 4/1/10 to 7/1/19 per Census estimates, per Seattle Times number crunching.)

4. Make sure comparisons are apples to apples. That "downtown" office market data might be for a square mile in one city and 50 square miles in another. Parallel comparisons are rare with some topics (they're hard to do), but you can define what's being compared.

5. Consider bias. This overlaps #1. Is the data intended to persuade, add clicks, or sell something? Don't trust a mall's "visitor" stats, to say nothing of newsertainment.

6. Look for logical holes and errors. If something seems wrong, there's a good chance it is. A little searching might clear things up. If you're still skeptical, say so.

7. Watch for unclear wording. Does "two times more" mean 1x2 or 1+2? Does "grocery store" include corner stores or just supermarkets? Let's not even get into the varied uses of "city."

8. Treat analyses with extra care. Predictions are just educated guesses by biased people, even if they're great at what they do. Treat every link in the writer's logic with skepticism.

9. When you share information, separate your opinions from data. Think about how your reader will interpret your writing with the same criteria described here.

10. Add links. The closer to the source the better. But remember that a link doesn't give you license to break any of the rules above, because a lot of people won't click the link or read it fully.

There's a wealth of insight and data out there! Good hunting.

PS, my blog posts are 100% true and shouldn't be questioned.

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