Thursday, September 29, 2011

Data, data, everywhere, and not a trend to believe!

Am I talking about my data? No, thank Darwin.

Today I'd like to talk about a problem that we're continually facing as a society; the overload of information that reaches our ears and eyes - especially in the form of numbers! It seems like I can't turn on the TV these days without seeing some new statistic about what will kill me or what kind of food I should eat. Seriously people, do I eat the egg yolks or not?? Make up your minds!

I'm currently taking a statistics course taught by a brilliant biological statistician at Texas Tech. He's one of those teachers that you just sit and absorb; I imagine if I was a scholar at the School of Athens, I would feel the same way about Plato or Socrates, but I digress. Statistics is what I want to talk about today. Numbers. It's hard to know what numbers to believe; how do we tell the fact from the fiction?

Unfortunately, the only way to find out what's real is to fact-check every piece of information you see. The best way to do this is get on Google Scholar and find the primary resource. Thankfully in science, the peer-review process of publication almost always weeds out those claims that are based in fiction or "noisy" data. But sometimes, those papers still slip through the cracks. We only know as much as those who've done science before us, and we can only do as much as the current technology allows us to. Sometimes it's hard to believe that at one time it was commonly thought that the Earth was flat - and that notion was probably based on something science-like!

So why am I taking the time to talk about this? Well, I think it's important that I (and you and everyone else) don't just absorb all of the information we hear, no matter what the source - with popular media, you never really know the source of the information. The only way to find the true meaning behind all the numbers is to look at the numbers yourself!

And on that note, an interesting email came through my inbox this morning; a post about using climate change and other "hot" environmental topics' data sets to boost inquiry learning in the classroom. Don't worry, I have a link: Macroecology Environmental Education. This website, funded through the ESA (Ecological Society of America), has valuable information about how to use data sets in the classroom, and some resources and links to example data sets. This sort of resource exemplifies one of the hardest parts of science to translate for students; we know what we know because of numbers. Mind effectively blown.

How do you feel about data sets? Do large batches of numbers make you want to scream and run away? Don't worry, you're not alone! :)

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