That Inner Suspicious Voice

I remember in an early Geography class in college learning that the US was actually about 5 times bigger than Greenland and thinking: WHAT IN THE ACTUAL F*CK?

I mean, I was staring at a map of the world on the wall that told me otherwise, which meant the ensuing lesson about map projections BLEW MY DAMN MIND. I mean, it’s obvious once I thought about it. Of course you make sacrifices when you convert a spherical globe to a flat map, but it never occurred to me how drastic those compromises would affect my worldview staring at Mercatur Projections in classrooms my whole life.

As I worked on my Geography degree I would come across the power of lying with maps time and time again. I would learn the different messages you could convey if you showed Christianity by area v/s Christianity by population on maps, because it’s a less dense religion in terms of landspace than it is in terms of populations. You see the same thing with political maps, Republicans like to show maps that just break down red/blue counties whereas Democrats like to show maps that account for population density.

I think it’s important to understand that no matter how you display data or deliver information, there’s always a method and the person giving this data or information chooses the method. I think we’re all becoming aware of this in the era of “fake news” because one person delivers data about how terrible the murder rates are in Illinois which has strict gun control, implying gun control doesn’t reduce crime. But then another person will respond to that by pointing out that the bordering states around Illinois have less gun control – and so states in the Northeast with less shared borders with more gun-friendly states are a better comparison.

It’s difficult to sort it all out and it’s also difficult not to be angry when you feel like you’ve been duped. I’m still angry at all of the classrooms I learned in that hung Mercatur projections on the walls. How distorted of a view of the world did I have as I entered college because of that visual?

So I think it’s important to always have that voice in your head that says…”That doesn’t sound right.” And I heard two series/episodes of podcasts recently that turned that voice into deep dive investigative reporting and I wanted to share them with you. They’re both from the podcast “Reply All” produced by Gimlet Media and while – of course – they’re going to have their own slant, I really was blown away the story that evolved by the digging into numbers that didn’t quite sound right.

First there’s the episode Negative Mount Pleasant which does a deep-dive into what happens when Big Business comes to a small town. The investigation started because some people just did NOT understand WHY this big company who got such cheap labor in other parts of the world, closer to supply chains, would come to Wisconsin. I think this episode is important to listen to if you’ve ever lived somewhere where some elected official stood in front of a big red ribbon for a ground-breaking…bragging about the jobs coming to your town in the wake of a new business development.

The next episodes are broken down into Part 1 and Part 2 and while I’ve linked to a lot of information before about the Criminal Justice system and it’s faults in our country, this dug in from a whole other level and all because someone once looked at the improving NYC crime stats year to year and thought: Wait. How does it just keep getting better every year? 

Those two episodes also reinforce that sometimes people are stuck in corrupt systems and we have to always keep that in mind when we’re quick to respond to individual errors.

I don’t know how to hone the voice inside my head that hears a statistic and feels like there’s just something off about it, but I’m glad others are following those instincts. And I think that’s what having multiple sources of news and information in your day-to-day life is important. And that’s also the downside to only watching one news channel all day, every day…you’re only exposing yourself to one set of suspicious minds.

Different people have different alarms in their head. Mine is honed with maps, I’m suspicious of ANY message delivered in map form. But maybe you have an instinctive awareness of poverty or crime or economics and you have different voices in your head when you hear certain news reports.

We live in a data-driven world and so we all need to be aware that there’s always a way to pick and choose your data to distort and direct your message. “A study found that…” is a shitty study if your sample size was only 5 people. Natural data patterns are usually at least slightly irregular so trends that follow a perfectly straight line should be suspicious to anyone. Any deal that sounds too good to be true, probably is. Complicated problems never have easy solutions.

I don’t think we need to be suspicious of all news or all data, but I think we need to have a variety of trustworthy sources in our lives and we need to never trust any media company or channel or publication to be our only source of news. And I think we need to always be suspicious of anyone who claims that THIS data set proves that THIS one solution to this VERY complicated problem is the only right way out.

2 thoughts on “That Inner Suspicious Voice”

  1. Part of my job for a long time was creating information graphics. I was keenly aware of trying to be as fair as possible, but the minute you start representing numbers in a visual forum there WILL be some bias, as we all have a specific language when it comes to interpreting colors/spaces/etc. It was maddening, but it was an important lesson for me – my suspicion around graphic representations of numbers is through the roof.

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