Friday, May 14, 2010

Today I'm Rambling - listen in if you want to!

When I was studying psychology at Stetson University one of the other students - "Dina" - was a high-achiever. She had a perfect grade-point average and it was important - in her mind - to remain flawless.

One day we walked by the professor's office to see the grade postings for our mid-term exam. Dina had an 88%, with "B+" written to the side.

She touched the paper with her index finger, stepped back, rubbed her eyes, looked again - and then went to pieces.

"What's the problem?" I asked. Dina was crying.

"I've never got anything below an A," she sobbed. "This is horrible."

Dr. L opened his door to see what all the commotion was about. Dina cried; I explained; Dr. L shrugged his shoulders. The former A-student was inconsolable.

Eventually, after ten minutes of near hysteria, Dr. L went back into his office and returned with a red marker. He drew a bold line under the name "Dina", then wrote "88 and above = an 'A' grade" in the same, bold, ink.

"There," he said. "Now you have an 'A'."

She brightened immediately, dabbed her eyes, smiled with satisfaction, and carefully recorded the amended grade in her note book.

"Look, I made an 'A' on my mid-term," she said to me, happily.

"What?" I said, incredulous. "How is that any different? You still got 12% or the answers wrong!"

Today, 30 years down the road, I'm still fascinated by the way things are measured, how "facts" are reported, and how we interpret such data; even though I've never been much of a math guy (just ask my "maths" teacher - that's English for "math" - from middle school).

On my morning walk with Scout there's a short stretch of Durant road where, for some reason, I started counting cars. I've been doing it for over two years. On average, somewhere between 45 and 60 vehicles pass us as we walk west, between Miller Road and Laurel Oak Drive. There are, typically, almost twice as many vehicles heading west than east.

That's mildly interesting, but it doesn't begin to tell the story. I have counted as few as 18 vehicles, and - one busy morning - as many as 102; as many as five motorcycles - but typically zero; one day five school buses, but mostly just one, or none at all.

If you asked me about the traffic and I told you "an average of 54 vehicles", what might that possible mean? You'd have to know what time of the morning I walked by, how fast we were going, was it a school day, was there road-work that forced more people down this street, how was the weather...?

And what could it say about gasoline consumption? When a truck counts the same as a Toyota Prius? Or one person on board scores the same as a minivan with seven?

So much of what we know depends on the wording of the question, the method of observation, the way information is collected, or collated, or interpreted. Is the same interpretation used by the person reporting the data? Does the wording change after the question has been answered?

The bottom line is that I could tell you pretty much anything I wanted to about traffic on Durant Road around 7:00 in the morning - and I could use "statistics" to back it up - but you wouldn't be any the wiser.

So what's my point? Well, I'm rambling, I'll be the first to admit that! But we live in an age where so much data is manipulated to support pre-conclusive arguments and politically biased agendas. I'm just saying we should all be open-minded yet suspicious. Ask a few questions of our own. Draw our own conclusions. Don't be afraid to re-think. Listen, yes, but think outside the box.

The only way you'll know the truth about traffic on Durant is to go out there and see for yourself. Just make sure you have your eyes wide open when you do!


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