The numbers behind “quality of education”

Gathering up numbers to shock, awe, and entertain is a core part of making interactive media engage people. It’s one of our favorite tricks:

150 Billion Stars, 50 million transistors, 50,000 blood cells on the head of a pin.

This works well enough, but even numbers can get political, in fact it is especially numbers that get political:

“The new fighter replacement program will cost over 30 Billion dollars”

“One in five kids in Canada go to school hungry”

“Every day, 500 Canadians are diagnosed with Cancer”

These numbers affect us quite personally – it’s our money and our lives and our culture. It matters a lot more than say, the mass of the moon in our perception.

And unfortunately we consider both the mass of the moon and the number of kids that go to school hungry as equivalent in terms of factual accuracy – because they are both expressed as numbers.

People – and headlines – don’t seem to have time to factor in the nuance of turning a complicated system into a single statistic; a stat should really have a big asterisk after it, just like the price of a new car, and small print should say what the accuracy of the stat is and how it was calculated.

Of course, why would anyone do that when it takes the edge off the message someone is trying to send with their statistic; any caveat reduces the authority and universality of a number.

So we have a problem – the most interesting numbers tend to be the less accurate, less representative ones, and much of the story is lost. This is why there cam be so much room for debate on interpretation.

A recent example is here – the state of US education – it has been measured to be in a continual decline, however this is just one small part of the total data, and as soon as you choose a subset of the known data, you are applying a skewed perspective, and by not explaining why or how you made this choice, you are simply misusing the perceived authority of numbers to back up your own agenda.

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