Bad Data

One of my favorite podcasts is Econtalk by Stanford Economics professor Russ Roberts. In the latest episode, he interviews researcher  Morten Jerven, who wrote a book about the difficulties in obtaining good economic data for countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. They are both of the opinion that the large uncertainty in the data makes virtually meaningless a large number of complicated regression analyses. I think this is a problem in science in general. We might know that some data collected is suspect, for whatever reason, be in experimental error, inherent limitations of the method, or simple variability in results. However, there is a large physiological pull to set aside these caveats and just go with the numbers, perhaps reasoning that, while not perfect, they are “better than nothing” or “the best we have to go on.” We will tend to give too much credence to data even when we know it is faulty. This is a special case of the well documented mental bias called anchoring. To combat this, we should first think of the computer aphorism GIGO (“Garbage in, garbage out“). Compounding the problem is the special credence lent to anything with equations in it, regardless of either the quality of the mathematical model OR the data put into it.


Author: lnemzer

Assistant Professor Nova Southeastern University

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