Data-driven opinion

February 4, 2013

In yesterday’s New York Times, I ran across an unusual opinion piece on gerrymandering. Sam Wang, the column’s author, made his argument with data.

“Using statistical tools that are common in fields like my own, neuroscience, I have found strong evidence that this historic aberration arises from partisan disenfranchisement,” Wang said. A graphic ran alongside the piece further explaining Wang’s statistical findings.

Of course, statistics (in traditional and visual forms) can be a wonderful tool to removing emotion from reality and giving us a raw version of what’s really happening. But we also know that statistics and visualizations can be used to mislead.

So, do statistics and graphics belong in the opinion section?

My initial reaction is that they absolutely do. The public already takes an extremely critical view of anything published by a news company. Readers should treat a data-driven piece no differently. Opinion writers have the duty to promote worthwhile discussion and encourage change, and the best do this by admitting anything worth debating is not black-and-white. Statistical methods are powerful and must be used to enhance this discussion, not to alter truth.

I see it as an ethical duty of opinion writers to be fair about their data, just as they shouldn’t mislead with anything they write. For complete clarity, I would have liked to see both Wang and graphics editor Bill Marsh publish their methodology in a related post.

The technique is young, but it isn’t likely to go away. I’d love more discussion on this.