2020 – Surviving Stunning Data Abuse


Many years ago I met with one of my engineering students to review an essay he was doing for me. He assured me that all he needed was good data and the facts would speak for themselves. Unfortunately, I really ticked him off him. I told him that’s wrong. I asked him to edit the essay to provide more context. I urged him to tell me his story and explain what the data means. I said his line of attack completed only half the job. To finish, he had to help the reader understand what all these numbers mean. He grudgingly did what I asked, though I don’t think he ever forgave me; at least not through the end of the term. But I gave him a good mark.

Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.

A Barrage of Data in 2020

In 2020 we have lived under a barrage of data. Some verified, some not, and very little offered with any relevant context. This is especially true with COVID-19. In fact, the debate about COVID-19 is a case study in stunning, awe-inspiring data abuse. 


Just the other morning I watched a video of an official spewing numbers to prove his administration’s terrific response to COVID. He said only a small percentage of COVID cases die, and these results are better than anywhere else in the world. So not to worry. But he didn’t say, in his jurisdiction, the actual COVID infection rate is much higher than most other places. So more people are getting sick. Actually, folks are suffering in numbers greater than in many other places.

If you find this confusing, join the crowd. The problem with all of this is it lacks context and leaves interpretation to the listener. It’s meant to be confusing.

The numbers he reported don’t alter the fact that many people are getting sick and dying. They overlook the long-term health effects on folks who survive COVID-19. This disease can lead to devastating, life-altering outcomes. Facts omitted from the data. 

An Example of Bad Data and Context

Let me offer some context as an example. If someone offers you 1% of everything they own, it tells you nothing. If that person is in debt, you could get 1% of their debt. It could break you. On the other hand, if they are Bill Gates, it could make you a multi-millionaire. It’s about context. 

As an engineer, I love numbers. I feel good having all the facts and figures at my fingertips. But most of us make critical decisions based on feelings, not data.

Relying on Data Alone Leads to Bad Decisions

I remember sitting in a meeting with some very seasoned executives. I had just shown them that investing in climate change projects would save the company a ton of money. They even agreed with the data. But they didn’t approve the project. They said it wasn’t core business.

Later, in casual conversation, I one of the execs told me climate change worried them and somehow, investing in it made it *feel*more real. 


2020 – Bad Data and Poor Decisions

Left to themselves, people will filter the facts. They will cherry pick, make false comparisons, and swear anything that doesn’t support their view is fake. This is normal. But it’s a problem. It allows folks to ignore what’s going on around them and excuse themselves from responsibility.

The lack of context in COVID data in 2020 has resulted in folks refusing to wear masks. Even worse, they attend large uncontrolled gatherings and become super-spreaders infecting their friends and families. This has caused needless suffering. While folks aren’t dying, they sure as heck are hurting.

2020 – Look for Context

So I look for context. Is that number real? Are the percentages meaningful? Are we hearing the whole story? Anything less is irresponsible.

Let’s all look for context before we make life-altering decisions about COVID. Some of our choices are trivial in view of to the possible results. With more complete knowledge, we CAN make better decisions.

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