The value of making things up

Rachel Borashko

On March 21, Amanda Cox gave a talk here at Grand Valley State University regarding her work on data visualization at the New York Times. Her talk made an impact on me, and I suspect it will continue to do so for a long time. Her perspective on data visualization, statistics and the media were nothing short of inspirational for a nerd like me.

Recently, Cox received a promotion and is now the editor of the Upshot at the New York Times. She described the Upshot as “kind of made up.” She emphasized, however, that this does not make her work worthless.

While her words may not have meant much to someone else, as a statistics and sociology major, Amanda Cox’s words stuck with me. “Kind of made up,” speaks to everything I do. A lot of what sociology is all about is studying social constructs, which although they are real, they are completely made up by society.

Does that make it any less interesting or worth studying? Absolutely not. Statistics, on the other hand, is something people tend to see as concrete and reliable. On the contrary, statistics is the science of uncertainty. It tries to make sense out of heaps of data to understand what’s there and to make it comprehensible. Sure, statistics seek truth, but there’s always much more to that than what statistics can tell us.

Statistics in general are imperfect, and I am glad Amanda Cox made a point of saying so. There seems to be an argument in society, and even within academia, about the worth of statistics and if and where they have their place. The point Cox seemed to be going for is that statistics and data visualization are just tools there to help us understand and digest information. Yes, they’re imperfect, but they’re still worthwhile to use. We can still use them to find trends and to analyze data without them being the end-all-be-all of research or understanding a study.

Just because something is made up does not make it uninteresting. Just because statistics are uncertain doesn’t mean they’re not worth listening to. The point of statistics, of data visualization, of news articles, is to point out things that are interesting. The point is to show trends, and try to slowly uncover something that might be reality. Often times, when it comes to news articles, graphics, or research, we get caught up in truth. Nobody is claiming, at least nobody should be claiming, that they have absolute truth.

The Lanthorn has a slogan: “Give light and the people will find their own way.” While not directly saying so, that idea is something that Cox seemed to represent well on Monday. For her, data visualization is all about pointing out what’s interesting and conveying information to the reader. This is what large media needs to get back to. When we read statistics or see a graphic, it should be taken with a grain of salt. It should be seen as a little piece of a small picture, or an interesting oddity.

Too often, media and statistics are abused. Skewed. Dripping with bias. Used to further an agenda. The rest of the society and media need to get back to what the Lanthorn and Cox are both already committed to doing: conveying noteworthy information for people to interpret for themselves.