Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Dataphobia (Do we all have it or just me?)

One danger I run into is forming an opinion on something and writing out my thoughts on it in great detail without finding data to support it, or assuming that the data supports it. That's probably how most of us think. I think there's psychology to support that...but where is it?

I want to get better at quickly finding the research behind things I think are true. But it's an IMMENSE task, and kind of scary.

I want to write about my ideas that the amount of work and waste that goes into a fossil fuel based industry/economy really take away from it's perceived efficiency and effectiveness. I'm sure there are some numbers to support that, or at least facilitate a discussion about it.

As someone who struggles with focus, details, memory, etc the prospect of finding, digesting and remembering that kind of information is really scary!! So much so that it normally paralyzes me from doing anything, or deciding that I'll do it later when I have more time. That later never comes.

I don't think I'm totally alone in this. We understand things in small chunks that apply to our lives and frames of reference, and communicators play to that. But communicators probably also use that to their advantage. And our own little frames of reference probably lead us to half truths or untruths.

The consensus project is pretty hotly debated and gets used as a sloganeering point more than a scientific resource. But any methodological issues it may have are overridden by the fact that several similar studies replicate its results. I like this post on that issue. But I use it as an example because it points to the significant disparity between perceived truth and empirical truth, a disparity likely to be found in many issues, moreso in controversial ones.

I've read and heard from a few sources I like and trust (more on that later) that this is a combination of the way our mind makes decisions (evolutionary science) and the way data is communicated and received in our political atmosphere (social science). There is great research for both. I had a lot of the psycho-social reserach condensed very effectively when I read Don't Even Think About It by George Marshall. And am about to dive more into data-interpretation with The Signal And The Noise by Nate Silver.

One great way to deal with large, complex and out of reach data is to get it condensed this way by an author you trust who has taken the time to examine it all and made it more understandable for you. But there is still that lingering fear for me, that if someone were to ask me to validate an opinion or reference to something, all I could say is "I read it somewhere", and not "well I've looked at all the data and the conclusion is valid". Maybe that's not realistic, there's certainly little time for every single interested citizen to examine ALL the data, and doing so takes a high degree of numeracy and statistical understanding to begin with...I'm not even there yet. I'm also a slow reader (more on that later). And when it comes to seeking out justification for an opinion or fear of being bad at focusing on details (even just the fear of reading something long!) stops me.

It leaves me with a lot of opinions that need exploration just free-floating around my head with fear, disorganization and being overwhelmed by the size of the information stopping me from ever doing anything about it. That's a big purpose for this blog, though I have yet to construct a post that comes from reading research on any particular topic. I'm not counting that as a negative because I'm letting the blog flow freely without any judgement.

Suffice it to say that doing research is a task that stimulates most of my most negative, fear based views of myself my mental process, but it's something that I REALLY want to be good at. It's something I think is the right way to engage with the world and important topics. But the fear is usually pretty crippling.

Is it procrastination to end with "more on that later"?

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