Postmodern Analytics: The Emergence of 'Alternative Facts'


(Image: jiawangkun/Shutterstock)

(Image: jiawangkun/Shutterstock)

During the weekend of President Trump's inauguration, there was a televised dispute regarding the number of people in attendance. The Trump administration argued that he had the highest inaugural attendance -- ever -- period. When this statement was challenged on Meet the Press, the response given was that the Trump statistics were 'alternative facts.'

When I heard the expression 'alternative facts' regarding the attendance number dispute, it struck me that postmodernism has finally infiltrated analytics. Postmodernism is a philosophical view that there are no central, core truths, but rather competing truth claims. Postmodernism suggests that there is no one religion that can be used as a bench mark against others. Postmodernism suggests that there is no one political economy that is superior to others. Postmodernism suggests that every voice, view, and value system has equal merit.

In that light, the public and media charges of prevarication, when examined through the prism of postmodernism, could be deemed 'alternative facts,' a competing set of truth claims regarding the scope of the Trump inauguration attendance.

So as I remove my tongue from my cheek, let's dig into the subject of postmodern analytics. Is there an exclusive and best way to draw a survey sample? Is there a statistical package that serves as the standard bearer? Is there only one correct way to perform multiple regression? Are five-point Likert scales the baseline against which three- or seven-point scales should be compared? When assigning codes to survey items, should gender be coded as 'M/F', '0/1,' or '1/2'? If two different peer-reviewed studies respectively show that wine does and does not prevent cancer, then which one is right? If we observe competing truth claims in analytic methods, tools or work products, then are the truths absolute or relative?

How do we derive analytic truths? Are analytic truths based on who funded the initiative? Do truths change over time, as when scientists shifted from geocentrism to heliocentrism? If analytic truths are analogous to an elephant and we are blind analysts touching it at different places, then is the truth of the trunk superior to the truth of the tusk? Would the ears define the elephant more so than its feet or tail?

So what's the point? Simply this - while many raise their voices in derision and ridicule regarding the phrase 'alternative facts,' perhaps we of the analytics community should examine the materials from which we build our houses before we throw stones. How many times do we use the expression 'It depends' when elaborating on analytic outcomes? How many times to we have to prove that our curves are normal and that our deviations and errors are standard?

As you ponder these questions, please remember the following dialog between Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Star Wars Episode VI - The Return of the Jedi):

Luke: Ben! Why didn't you tell me? You told me that Darth Vader betrayed and murdered my father.
Obi-Wan: Your father... was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force. He ceased to be the Jedi Anakin Skywalker and "became" Darth Vader. When that happened, the good man who was your father was destroyed. So, what I told you was true... from a certain point of view.
Luke: A certain point of view?
Obi-Wan: Luke, you're going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.

What do you say? Are we in a postmodern period of analytics? Do different perspectives mean that analysts are ethically-challenged or can there be 'alternative truths'? Are we void of common truths or should we seek beliefs around which we can find consensus if not unanimity? What is your point of view?

Bryan Beverly, Statistician, Bureau of Labor Statistics

Bryan K. Beverly is from Baltimore. He has a BA in sociology from Morgan State University and an MAS degree in IT management from Johns Hopkins University. His continuing education consists of project management training through the ESI International/George Washington University programs. He began his career in 1984, the same year he was introduced to SAS software. Over the course of nearly 30 years, he has used SAS for data processing, analytics, report generation, and application development on mainframes, mini-computers, and PCs. Bryan has worked in the private sector, public sector, and academia in the Baltimore/Washington region. His work initially focused on programming, but over the years has expanded into project management and business development. Bryan has participated in in-house SAS user groups and SAS user group conferences, and has published in SAS newsletters, as well as company-based newsletters. Over time, his publications have expanded from providing SAS technical tips to examining the sociological, philosophical, financial, and political contexts in which IT is deployed. He believes that the key to a successful IT career is to maintain your skills and think like the person who signs your paycheck.

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Postmodern Analytics: The Emergence of 'Alternative Facts'

If we observe competing truth claims in analytic methods, tools or work products, then are the truths absolute or relative?


Re: Objective
  • 2/17/2017 3:21:34 PM
NO RATINGS

@Jim,

One thing that some federal agencies attempt to do, is to provide complete transparency of its data products, business rules and methods. For example, BLS does this so that anyone, anywhere and at any time can reasonably replicate or mimic what the agency does. From a broader perspective (and from a future blog hopefully) is the notion that data auditors often use transparency as a proxy for regulatory oversight. Practically speaking, there are not enough sheriffs to ensure that all private and public entities are all playing by the rules or are not making mistakes.  One approach to remedy this labor market shortage is letting public crowdsourcing serve as a regulatory agent. With everything made available to the public, you make it possible for millions of people to arrive at a global consensus of the validity of ones data products.  In effect, you cannot prevent the creation of alternative facts, but transparency allows for everyone to evaluate the facts for themselves.

Re: Objective
  • 2/17/2017 1:27:52 PM
NO RATINGS

@PC there is the ideal, and then there is reality. Jacob Bronowski said, "No science is immune to the infection of politics and the corruption of power."

Re: Objective
  • 2/17/2017 11:58:08 AM
NO RATINGS

@James Really, that's your read on Scarlett? The same actress from that film adaption showed what it's like to live in an alternative realm in "A Streetcar Named Desire."

Anyway, I found a course that is meant to address just this problem, though I'm not sure it can be named on this forum. The site is CallingBullS---.org and that's what it is supposed to be about with the addition of "in the age of big data." 

Re: Objective
  • 2/17/2017 9:08:32 AM
NO RATINGS

@Bryan. The rich, the powerful, "to the manor born." Yes, they can create alternative facts. When I read your response it made me think back and the name Scarlett O'Hara popped into my head. Rich, powerful, definitely manor born, and living in the ultimate realm of alternative facts.

The trouble is, I don't think we have a Clark Gable who can put today's alternative fact mongers in their place.

Re: Objective
  • 2/16/2017 8:07:19 PM

@PC,

I would say that is a risk unless we (to use the urban vernacular of socio-historical awareness) stay 'woke' (that is an intentional grammatical construction - smile).  Your point is valid - our national domestic policy on science determines funding. The verbal cues toward the social value of truth, truth as a cheap commoditized public economic good and treating truth as a quantum entity (i.e., Schroedinger's Cat - truth is dead and alive) sends signals to law makers that the advancement of knowledge will not put us on the path to greatness.  The promise of bringing back the good old days of manufacturing is a false hope unless we are manufacturing applications written in .NET and C#.  If we are not vigilant then yes, politics can prevent us from advancing in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

Allegorically, we have a segment of our country that suffers from Rip Van Winkle Syndrome. It's not that they slept 20 years, but rather they slept through a revolution. They just realized that the economy they enjoyed under King George III no longer works under George Washington; the Union Jack has been replaced with the Stars and Bars.  Instead of wanting to learn new technologies, they want the musket factories to come back.  So yes to your point, if the general population goes to sleep, then there will not be investments into advanced technology but rather musket repair tools.

Excellent point about pre-western cultures that advanced via innovation; we often forget that the Egyptians built the pyramids without AGILE methods or project management software. In fact, the Egyptians, Israel (under David and Solomon), Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans all made some efforts to advance knowledge in some respect to help their civilizations remain economically and militarily competitive - regionally and globally.

So yes, I would say that unless the thought leaders of the hard sciences and knowledge workers in general (us) keep lobbying and keep pressing the need to invest in the intellectual development of human capital, then I think we will fall behind. Mind you, I am a person for whom matters of faith are the core of my life. But that does not mean that I shut down my brain.  There is room for faith and science, and it does not have to be an either/or situation, but both/and. In fact, it is through the advancement of science and knowledge discovery that I can better appreciate the One whom I believe is the source of all knowledge.

So yes - we must stay 'woke' or repeat the tragedy of Rip Van Winkle; advanced analytics that lead to knowledge discovery or muskets - it's our choice.

Re: Objective
  • 2/16/2017 6:37:11 PM
NO RATINGS

@Bryan - 

Science, at least the hard sciences, are built on objectivity.

There were many relatively advanced cultures in the ancient world, for example in Egypt, China, Persia and Greece which did not lead to the blooming of modern science. (Each of them had substantial innovation, but not to the point of transforming society with the scientific method.)

Do we risk slipping back into a culture where the advances of science are slowed or stopped because politics does not allow science to go wherever the truth leads? Because our philosophy as a culture is unwilling to say that some ideas are not true? Or unwilling to fund research that is unpopular?

Re: Objective
  • 2/16/2017 3:16:10 PM
NO RATINGS

@Jim,

I would guess that it would drive them as batty as it does us. As I sift through your points, what jumps out at me is that we (the non-ultra rich and non-ultra powerful) do not have the will to create our own realities by the sheer force of our wealth or connections.  We live in a world where there are limits and where natural, social and behavioral phenonmena can be measured in discrete units and in a repeatable fashion. But if one is 'to the manor born', then you are used to either having or imposing your own realities; you see what you want, you count what you want and you can grab what you want. Most of us don't live in that rarified air.  We live in a world of common sense and not where we can impose manifest destiny upon reality.

So I am pretty sure that those in the hard sciences are going nuts because they by nature and nurture, by gift and by training, engage the world as it is and not as they wish it to be. For them, if the facts do not exist, they do not have the money and power to manufacture some alternative ones. When you have been used to deploying investigative and epistemological approaches in seeking knowledge, it must be disheartening to know that you could just make up your own - would have saved the cost of a graduate degree. Kudos - point well taken!

Re: Objective
  • 2/16/2017 1:14:56 PM
NO RATINGS

@SaneIT,

That's a tough nut to crack because those who advocate for the end of political correctness (i.e., say whatever you want, unfiltered and unvarnished) are also advocates for Alternative Facts. In effect, they feel free to express their thoughts but also want to use that freedom to reshape reality.  Somehow we must move to the middle where we burst the tinted bubbles but not replace them with rose colored glasses. Hence, I think we start by speaking the truth in love, and continue to remonstrate against individuals and institutions that create a false sense of superiority of the insecure and inept, and a false sense of inferiority of the ready, willing and able. I think it means reclaiming those 'truths that were self evident that all are created equal'. I think it means being willing to be unfollowed on Facebook and speaking truth to power irrespective of the consequences. I think it means that we must reach a national consensus that the only way to make America great again is to locate our moral compasses.

And we can do this at a very granular level by asking each one to reach one, starting at the dining room table tonight.

Re: Objective
  • 2/16/2017 12:15:41 PM
NO RATINGS

@SaneIT

The question then is the therapist visit delayed until those harsh truths hit them as adults?


By "harsh realities" do you mean, "Yes, you do have to show up at work every day," and "If you don't pay your rent you are out"?

True, living in a world of alternative facts doesn't prepare kids for that reality.

I wonder what professionals who live in a world of "hard" science -- physics, chemistry, etc. -- and math (numbers are numbers) think about this talk of alternative facts. Just mere thought that you can look at a gathering of people, count heads, and still come up with estimates that vary by 50% even 100% must be sending those scientists to their own therapists.

Re: Objective
  • 2/16/2017 11:04:13 AM
NO RATINGS

"Second, in an effort to ensure that all children have high self esteem and never need a therapist, we have been allowing them to feel entitled to their own realities instead of giving them the harsh truths of life. "

The question then is the therapist visit delayed until those harsh truths hit them as adults?  Are we setting ourselves up for failure by painting a picture that is far enough from reality that when the truth hits it becomes damaging?  If you tell the CEO what he wants to hear because you can support it with "alternative facts" are you doing the company any good?  When performance falters and he gets his severance package will yours look anywhere as good?  Postmodernism seems to be creating a world of bubbles where if you stay in your bubble everything can be great but reality is that you have to exit that bubble at least occasionally. How do we lay down a foundation of truth that even those in the darkest tinted bubbles can see them?

 

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