Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Measured data and the importance of context in interpretation

An excellent example of the importance of maintaining perspective.

I am a keen advocate of using empirical data to inform important decisions. Among the challenges is to keep some sort of context to the data that is being examined. It isn't always saying what you first might think it is saying.

From Googling for God by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz.

Google searches for trends is an interesting resource but it has to be matched to alternative sources of trend data to determine that it is representative.

It has been a bad decade for God, at least so far. Despite the rising popularity of Pope Francis, who was elected in 2013, Google searches for churches are 15 percent lower in the first half of this decade than they were during the last half of the previous one. Searches questioning God’s existence are up. Many behaviors that he supposedly abhors have skyrocketed. Porn searches are up 83 percent. For heroin, it’s 32 percent.

How are the Ten Commandments doing? Not well. “Love thy neighbor” is the most common search with the word “neighbor” in it, but right behind at No. 2 is “neighbor porn.” The top Google search including the word “God” is “God of War,” a video game, with more than 700,000 searches per year. The No. 1 search that includes “how to” and “Walmart” is “how to steal from Walmart,” beating all questions related to coupons, price-matching or applying for a job.
The example that Stephens-Davidowitz uses which I find a sharp prompt towards context is:
In the era before digital data, there were debates about the relative popularity of celebrities and deities, most famously when John Lennon claimed that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Lennon didn’t live long enough to compare Google search counts. Today, it is pretty clear that Jesus does not get the most attention, at least online. There are 4.7 million searches every year for Jesus Christ. The pope gets 2.95 million. There are 49 million for Kim Kardashian.
People are searching ten-times as often for Kim Kardashian as for Jesus Christ. But what does that really mean? Is Kim Kardashian really ten times more important than Jesus Christ? I think the answer can be a reasonably certain, No! but how then to understand the data?

What about ten years ago and ten years from now. Sic transit gloria mundi. Jesus Christ has been around 2,000 years and is imbued and embedded in a our culture and our way of thinking about the world in ways that are simply foundational. From that perspective, Jesus Christ will always take second place to flash-in-pan celebrities and issues.

Related to that, one might postulate that people simply have less reason to google Jesus Christ. Any bookstore or library have footages of biblical related resources far exceeding the handful of Kardashian tomes they might have. What about the fact that there is a church every block or every few blocks in any American city? Isn't that evidence of a presence in daily life quite different, more substantial, and of greater duration than the bad-behaving celebrity of the moment?

No answers, as I say, I think the article is a good reminder of the importance of context and that the easy interpretation of data is not necessarily either the most useful or the most accurate.

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