Our global data crisis

By Yasmin Abbas

When asked to write a formal essay, it is very likely that you, whether you are an adult or still a student, have required research to formulate ideas or to gather data. Regardless of which, you’ve been asked to extract this information from a reliable source, to prevent misinformation. The safest bet, for most of you (me included) has for long been scholarly essays. I’m not here to discredit the work that many scholars put into formulating research papers or academic articles, but there are a few key points of information that need to be brought to light.

Firstly, there is the almost god-like hailing of academics. Undoubtedly these people have dedicated a considerable amount of their time towards learning about a certain issue, but they do not hold the absolute truth on the matter. These people are also susceptible to biases, have limitations in their studies and most of the time, aren’t focused in attaining the purest level of truth, in fact, most of the times, they’re trying to prove their point. Not all scholarly articles are peer reviewed, meaning that some articles can be published without anyone looking over it and making sure that this academic didn’t just write whatever they wanted to get published. While it is very tempting to simply cite a source that backs up your claim, I believe it is far more respectable to be willing to change a belief or claim to attend to reality, rather than to knowingly perpetuate a bias.

Secondly, data does not equate facts. The inclusion of numbers, surveys and graphs in an article does not ensure that you are reading a factual analysis of reality. In fact, many times, especially in scientific studies, data can be manipulated or presented in a misleading way to suggest a personal belief held by the author. In the scientific community —  especially in the light of the monetisation of research paper publication — manipulated data has reached an all-time-high as researchers are getting payed to publish misleading data for companies. Once this data is published, not only does it become public and thus people are vulnerable to believing a carefully crafted fib, but this data can now be re-published, cited and used to solidify unreasonable arguments, further perpetuating misinformation.

Alright. So there is fake data floating around — not just in family WhatsApp groups or on my Facebook feed, the sources that I once believed to be the most reliable may not be, so what?

The values of society are built upon our beliefs, ideals and science. The decisions we make politically, economically and ethically depend on scientific breakthroughs and simple experimentations, so if these are tampered with, we begin to lead our society towards a path that becomes progressively more detached from reality, as these can be based on falsified evidence. I may be getting ahead of myself in the sense that this misinformation probably will not result in our society’s doom, as my last sentence suggests, but I do believe it is currently happening in a small scale. Not being able to personally understand why something is a way it is and simply pointing at a piece of evidence that is handed to you is unsettling, almost as if you are slowly losing grasp of reality. How can you understand what is happening in the world if false information is all that you have available? How is society supposed to progress when information, the most basic of rights is being denied to us?

There are projects like that of the self-proclaimed “Data Thugs” that are currently underway to get rid of questionable research and false data, but a strong ethical sense from me and you also goes a long way. When reading an absolutely biased report on a matter, make sure to at least acknowledge other possible perspectives when publishing or talking about an issue. Verify, to the extent possible the validity of your information; if you can, make sure a good part of the scientific papers you are citing are peer reviewed. There is nothing wrong about publishing an opinion, the wrong is in referring to that opinion as a truth. Much like movements of social justice, I believe that data reliability should be our next in vogue issue that gains traction and moves people to protest for more reliable information.