Reading the fine print is one of the necessary skills in the world today. I guess this attitude makes me a rather skeptical person in general, but it also helps me form better opinions in general. Why do I think that? I’m glad you asked.
Years ago I heard a quote, which has stuck with me. “There are lies, damn lies and then there’s statistics.” Now days when there is so much data being generated and captured by so many people, it is hard to go through a day without getting bombarded by some statistic or another. Depending on the story a person is trying to tell they will manipulate the numbers behind the statistics so it tells exactly what they want the story to say.
For close to two years I spent my time creating visualizations and reports based on data at a company. I worked closely with the data warehouse team and we discussed many times how easily the data could be manipulated depending on the motivations of the people involved. We also discussed how dirty the data is and how much it needs to be cleaned up before it can be presented to people in a reliable fashion. We were adamant that the data be as clean as we could get it, that it was presented in a uniform fashion and could not be “gamed” to tell an inaccurate story.
The problem is that when using data you need to make sure people understand what the data represents, how it was collected and how it is being reported. In many instances today people lump a large number of related but very different data points together and then make broad statements which do not actually represent the truth.
The key in any reporting effort is making sure you understand the underlying data and what it represents. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Our World in Data decided to use the European CDC data for a number of reasons. To best understand what the ECDC the key is to read the “Notes on the data” and to decide for yourself if you will trust the assumptions and if the data is clean enough for you to trust any conclusions from it. And the point?
Read the fine print. Read the notes about the information you are consuming. Try to understand the point of view and the frame of reference the person presenting you the story is coming from and then try and make you own, informed decision about how much you trust a source or not.
In other words: “Read the Fine Print.”