Saturday, August 23, 2008

Seeing Data the Way we Want

An interesting phenomenon in scientific research is what I'll call data blindness. This is where a researcher looks at a set of data and confirms what they are looking for, or ignores something that contradicts their hypothesis. This has been a long-standing problem in paranormal research, where researchers hoping to find some effect ignore data that contradicts what they're looking for. Doing this is only human. Its only natural to get emotionally invested in your research and fall victim to this kind of thing. That's why we have peer review in science.

Being that the Olympics are in full swing, its instructive to look at how the medal count is being reported in different countries. First lets check on how the British see things. The BBC has a table with medal counts that has China ranked #1, since the BBC is ranking based on who has the most gold medals.

Interestingly, Sports Illustrated, an American publication, tracks total number of medals putting the United States at the top. Not surprisingly China ranks by gold medals also, putting them in the #1 spot.

This is a simple example, but it shows how looking at the data the way we want changes the results, in this case being the medal rankings.

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