How Politics is Destroying The Value of Data

The world we live in stands as a testament to the overwhelming will to progress that drives humanity forward. Just 100 years ago, the concept of artificial intelligence and gene editing were the realm of science fiction writers and not university research, and data was scarce and hard to come by. Today, we have plans to send humans to Mars, link our brains with computers, and edit out the genetic markers that lead to any host of genetic diseases. All of this was possible because of two things, interconnected in a way rarely seen in this world. The scientific method, and data.

The scientific method was first documented by Sir Francis Bacon, an Englishman who put pen to paper and drew up the battle lines of scientific proof for the next 300 years. It is based on a few simple steps and has led to the discovery of many of the amazing achievements outlined above.

  1. Make an observation.

Now, let’s add a 7th step that has become key to this methods ability to generate widely applicable observations as well.

7. Release the results for review and additional testing to the scientific community.

The basis of the method is simple. See, Predict, Test, Repeat. In the process, scientists collect data and observations that can be used by others in their attempt to duplicate the results. In this way, scientific data is created and disseminated.

Data is the key to the scientific method and more than that it is one of the fundamental constructs that allow us to understand the world around us both intrinsically and conceptually. It allows us to create predictions about the chances of rain on any given day, to place bets on sporting events, or to understand the whims of public opinion. Data like math is likely as close to the handwriting of god as we will ever get.

Now, data like anything can be manipulated. It can be pushed, pulled, and molded into something it isn’t. Imbued with meaning that it doesn’t have, or otherwise corrupted. This happens from time to time, but the scientific method is quick to remedy these situations. Data that is faked is quickly discredited if the method is followed. But, in an age where the internet and social media create worldwide reach without the need for peer review, data is being used by politicians and political parties to create arbitrary fault lines within our democracy. Data is being corrupted, removed from the pedestal that it has sat on for hundreds of years, and dragged through the muddy waters of election meddling and public policy.

So, what does it look like?

As a way to show you exactly how politics is destroying data, we are going to take a deep dive into two topics, both of which are front and center right now heading into the 2020 election cycle.

  1. Voter Fraud

Let’s start with voter fraud. Voter fraud is the idea that someone can either vote multiple times, vote for someone they are not, or in any other way create or remove votes from the overall voting pool that are not representative.

Now, voter fraud has rarely been brought up as an issue, largely because the data doesn’t support the idea of widespread voter fraud. One of the most comprehensive studies on the subject was done by Harvard in relation to double voting. It came to the conclusion below.

“The evidence compiled in this article suggests that double voting is not currently carried out in such a systematic way that it presents a threat to the integrity of American elections. We estimate that at most only 1 in 4,000 votes cast in 2012 were double votes, with measurement error in turnout records possibly explaining a significant portion, if not all, of this.”

Now, despite the data failing to back up the assumption that voter fraud, including double voting, is a significant problem, over 25% of Americans believe that it is.

This means that 1 out of 4 Americans believe that something widely discredited within the scientific community is in fact a real problem.

How did we get there? Well, the answer is complicated but is really boils down to a single underlying issue. The data was manipulated and presented by people who hold a position of authority, through the use of mass media. This is a new approach from the previous system which typically employed social media and other largely un-checked means of dissemination. In this new model, the data is being presented by someone who holds a position that grants them increased credibility. Additionally, it’s being presented through media outlets with a considerable history, and therefore improved credibility as well. A good synopsis of this new approach can be found here.

Now, let’s take a look at the more startling of the two issues, the Coronavirus.

COVID-19 for anyone not following the news is a novel virus that has wreaked havoc on global commerce and people’s health the world over. It is currently attributed to over 1 million deaths in 2020 alone. The US currently stands at roughly 7.5 million cases with total deaths at 209,000.

Some quick back of the napkin math puts the mortality rate at roughly 2.7%. For context according to the CDC between October 1, 2019, and April 4, 2020, there were roughly 39–56 million flu cases, with total deaths between 24,000 and 62,000. So, some quick napkin math again, using the lowers case rate and highest death rate gives us a rough mortality rate of .016% Now, that means that this new virus stands as being roughly 15x more deadly than the seasonal flu, with a higher R0 value which leads to increased transmission from a single carrier. Kind of scary right?

With all this data freely available, and the whole world working toward a solution it seems reasonable that the public would want to take precautions. Masks and social distancing were chosen by health officials as the most efficient and cost-effective ways to reduce transmission. Each of these serves a very different purpose. Masks, especially cloth masks function to stop water droplets from being expelled by someone who is potentially infected, while social distancing increases the distance the viral particles must travel to potentially be received by a new host. While neither is 100% effective, both have been shown to help reduce transmission. Below are a few of the more prominent resources regarding the efficacy of each.

We are now 7 months into the pandemic, and there are still large swaths of the country that do not believe either of those to be effective measures despite the data. So again, how did we get to a point where the data was manipulated to create this facade of credibility?

This one is similar to the voter fraud issue in that people of authority have repeatedly reported that the measures are ineffective, or less effective than they truly are, but it is also being impacted by the creation of a social stigma related to these policies. Instead of going directly after the data, political entities have instead opted to paint social distancing and mask-wearing in a psychological light as weak or somehow infringing upon a person’s liberties. Instead, they attempt to create a culture that vilifies the wearing of masks and instead create idols of people who flout the science and data.

In the end, the result is a net negative for everyone. Data should be used as a cornerstone of sound decision making. A way to verify the direction that we are moving policy or public health decisions. Instead, it has been reduced to a political pawn. A way to agitate the masses and drive hatred and votes. Data is being corrupted and it is every person’s duty to point of where and when it is happening. Data holds the keys to a better future, even if right now it’s helping to speed us toward the cliff edge.

Aspiring fiction writer, developer, lifelong student, seeker of meaning.

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