Commentary: Rethink Normal

I am a nerd. It is a painful admission to make in public. I am not Sheldon Cooper nerdy, nor am I in danger of becoming any other character on the Big Bang Theory. However, I do like research. And I am a big believer in looking at the data. But I also look beyond the data.

British Journalist Steve Turner wrote a satirical poem called Creed; in it he wrote:

We believe in Marxfreudanddarwin. We believe everything is OK, as long as you don’t hurt anyone, to the best of your definition of hurt, and to the best of your knowledge.

We believe in sex before during and after marriage. We believe in the therapy of sin. We believe that adultery is fun. We believe that sodomy’s OK. We believe that taboos are taboo.

We believe that everything’s getting better, despite evidence to the contrary. The evidence must be investigated. You can prove anything with evidence.

We believe there’s something in horoscopes, UFO’s and bent spoons; Jesus was a good man just like Buddha, Mohammed and ourselves. He was a good moral teacher although we think his good morals were bad.

We believe that all religions are basically the same, at least the one that we read was. They all believe in love and goodness. They only differ on matters of creation sin heaven hell God and salvation.

We believe that after death comes The Nothing, because when you ask the dead what happens they say Nothing. If death is not the end, if the dead have lied, then it’s compulsory heaven for all excepting perhaps Hitler, Stalin and Genghis Khan.

We believe in Masters and Johnson. What’s selected is average. What’s average is normal. What’s normal is good.

We believe in total disarmament. We believe there are direct links between warfare and bloodshed.
Americans should beat their guns into tractors and the Russians would be sure to follow.

We believe that man is essentially good. It’s only his behavior that lets him down. This is the fault of society. Society is the fault of conditions. Conditions are the fault of society.

We believe that each man must find the truth that is right for him. Reality will adapt accordingly. The universe will readjust. History will alter. We believe that there is no absolute truth excepting the truth that there is no absolute truth. We believe in the rejection of creeds.

Mr. Turner wrote this poem in the early 1970’s. The part about Masters and Johnson is so powerful: “What’s selected is average. What’s average is normal. What’s normal is good.” Almost 50 years ago, a British journalist understood that it was obvious we are manipulated by data. He understood the consequences, as well.

Unfortunately, irrelevant or duplicate data is collected. Worse, pertinent data may be omitted by those collecting the data. This leads to a misinterpretation of the data collected. Opinion polls, you remember those polls, right? Many pollsters haven’t called an election right since Dewey defeated Truman.

Sometimes opinion polls suffer from ghost populations. Those collecting data either over sample people or record people based on a certain demographic. What may be worse is that the population surveyed is genuine and well defined, but the samples do not reflect that demographic adequately. As far as elections go, if a complete stranger calls you while you are eating dinner, are you really going to tell him exactly what he wants to know: things such as income level, number of people in your household and whether or not you have an affinity for the 2nd Amendment? The person at the other end might not be a law abiding citizen. Raw data is not an analysis, and it doesn’t tell a story.

However, when you start measuring data for an analysis, you will probably notice that even under similar conditions, you can get different results. Statistical variance gives a measure of how the data distributes itself about the mean or expected value. Variance should be reported with results. Variance is used in probability theory. From a given smaller sample set, more generalized conclusions can be mined. Data analysts have to understand variance and address it. If you look into it, you will find that statisticians reviewing variability use an assortment of terms, such as: errors, deviations, distortions, inexactness, differences and other terms. To most people that is negative, but really it is just more things to consider. People just have to account for differences and hope they are exact in their science.

Nothing explains variance like sports. I played and coached baseball for years, and that taught me some important lessons. Since the concept of Moneyball, advanced statistics have had a large influence on team strategy and personnel decisions in the major leagues. Still data alone cannot explain things like talent and team chemistry, or when a pitcher or hitter gets hot.

Recently I was reading a report on education by researchers from a well-known University. I read it and then re-read it. Honestly, I was amazed at the lack of quality of the work. What concerns me is the fact that this work may inform government or policymakers who will certainly fail to look into the subject at a deeper level.

Steve Turner added a postscript to his poem, he called Chance.

“We believe in the rejection of creeds, and the flowering of individual thought. If chance be the Father of all flesh, disaster is his rainbow in the sky, and when you hear State of Emergency! Sniper Kills Ten! Troops on Rampage! Whites go Looting! Bomb Blasts School! It is but the sound of man worshiping his maker.”

Yes, data is important. Yes, we must analyze the data. Any misrepresentation of the population in the sample or weights can lead to skewed results. Factor in bias of analysts, and you can easily understand why there are so many flaws in data collection. This will lead to poor decision making by those who need the data. For those of us that are data driven, it might be a good thing to rethink normal. It may be time to question the analyses.

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. Follow him on social media via Twitter at @jcbowman.

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