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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Re: Delight me with your lies
  • 3/13/2017 1:02:25 AM
NO RATINGS

@T Sweeney - agreed - both the left and the right are equally guilty. Even in my own journey, in growing up during the Civil Rights period, the messaging was equally bad. One side said that blacks were inferior and should be subjugated as second class citizens. The other side said that blacks needed caretakers but were competent enough to vote for their caretakers every four years. So in my own formative journey, it became clear to me that both messages were based on an assumption of innate superiority at a cultural level. Both the right and left believed that they were correct and the other side incorrect - not seeing the common fallacy that they shared. Hence, I try to be balanced in how I see all subjects, because what became clear to me (just speaking about my own experiences- hence a sample size of 1), was that whether the dictator was malevolent or benevolent, that the humanity, intelligence and moral sensibilities of many blacks were automatically suspect. So yes, both the left and right hands that govern our political policies are equally dirty. And shifting anatomical metaphors, the senses of the left and right sides of our national brain trusts have been dulled. And because the real issues of life hurt so much, we are willfully ignorant in the attempt to find narratives that let us sleep each night. If both sides can promote narratives of greatness that galvanizes their constituents, then we can ignore the 'other stuff'. Yes - totally agreed - both sides of the political spectrum are equally guilty.

Re: Looming danger
  • 3/12/2017 5:58:06 PM
NO RATINGS

..

Terry writes


... we also didn't need the Internet, social media and the 24-hour news cycle to contribute to a culture where people can be persuaded to believe just about anything. With so much data and noisy content coming our way, it dulls our senses, not to mention our powers of discernment. 
We are an intellectually lazy people.


 

Indeed. I still haven't recovered from astonishment at the magnitude of the chunk of the U.S. population that appears to be hopelessly susceptible to gullibility beyond belief. This, in a technologically advanced modern country, with presumably a high level of education, here in the 21st century.

In this regard, I refer a recent article in the Huffington Post; the title pretty much sums up the content: A Satire Website Posted Fake News To Trump Supporters. Many Believed It.

As the article reports, 


The idea was simple enough: publish as many absurd, obviously fake stories imaginable, and see if anyone actually falls for it. The results of this experiment were both fascinating and disheartening. 


 

"While writing them, I was aiming for stories that no one would believe, but rather would be satirical in an age where disinformation is so prevalent" the publisher, James McDaniel, explained. But, he says, "To my surprise, the Trump masses embraced my stories as fact, almost universally .... It seemed that there wasn't anything I could write that was too wild or outrageous to be believed by this particular audience."

He adds:


I was startled that in today's world, so many could be so willfully ignorant .... It's truly a frightening time when a group of people screaming, "FAKE NEWS!" at the top of their lungs, live, eat and sleep falsehoods.


 

What are we all coming to?

..

Re: Looming danger
  • 3/11/2017 6:50:40 PM
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Dangerous, indeed, Lyndon. But we also didn't need the Internet, social media and the 24-hour news cycle to contribute to a culture where people can be persuaded to believe just about anything. With so much data and noisy content coming our way, it dulls our senses, not to mention our powers of discernment. 

We are an intellectually lazy people.

Re: Delight me with your lies
  • 3/11/2017 6:47:08 PM
NO RATINGS

Agreed, Bryan, about dominance dulling our senses or leading to conditions where we live in a bubble of selective perception and willful ignorance. And I'd hasten to add that the left and right ends of the political spectrum are equally guilty here.

Looming danger
  • 3/11/2017 11:46:27 AM

..

News events over about the past 24 hours have brought the discussion in this thread to mind.

The modus operandi of some behaviors of the Trump team seem to be shaping into a pattern. In this pattern, factual reality is being disparaged and replaced by a kind of fantasy environment of "alternative facts" that is intended to serve as the basis for accepted beliefs and policymaking. To me, this is extremely dangerous and puts all of us in considerable peril.

Now, I do have a tendency to perceive longterm trends from rather small beginnings. But my experience is that most of the time I'm right.

First, traditional sources of information – particularly the news media – are being disparaged and portrayed as untrustworthy ("fake news"). Of course, this has been going on for weeks, months. However, this stratagem has recently been expanded to include important agencies and institutions such as the Congressional Budget Office, whose traditional "nonpartisan" analysis of major legislative proposals (most recently, the Trump/GOP repeal of the ACA) is being portrayed as unreliable and unworthy of serious consideration. Instead, stridently politically motivated alternative "analyses" and dubious "facts" and "projections" from the proponents are being substituted.

Second, Trump & Co. are presenting themselves as the sole source and arbiters of what "facts" are valid and acceptable. This seems clear from Trump's reaction to the latest U.S. job creation numbers, official data whose validity in the past Trump has been disparaging for some time before his assumption of the presidency. This is well captured by the headline for a perceptive Huffington Post article: White House Officially Declares Jobs Numbers 'Very Real' After Calling Them Fake For Years.

The third component in this pattern is brazen denying and lying – exhibited in the current kefaffle over the Trump team's mysterious contacts with representatives and operatives of the Russian government. Opportunities to scutinize denials (and other assertions) and confront and question Trump and his proxies over these issues have been minimized and heavily constricted and manipulated (e.g., Sean Spicer's intimidating daily "press conferences", extremely limited reports from the State Dept., etc.). Thus, efforts to challenge denials and lies are constricted and minimimized to the point of impotency. And the regime can merely counter accusations of lying with its own version of "alternative facts".

Surely the application of reliable factual information and the availability of trustworthy and comptent factual reporting should be essential hallmarks of sound policymaking. How, for example, could competent analytical processing of federal government big data be trusted if that "big data" is corrupted by the fantasies and whims of whichever regime is controlling that government?

I'd call that pretty darn dangerous ...

..

Re: Delight me with your lies
  • 3/1/2017 8:53:14 PM
NO RATINGS

@Lyndon_H, Your words remind me of a sermon by Martin Luther King. It was called 'Great, But ...'. In this message, he identified several great civilizations and epochs and noted the stark contrast of their weakness. The Germans, who gave to the world so much in music, theology, philosophy, the social, behavioral and natural sciences yet also gave space to Hitler. Perhaps that is our problem. Arrogance birthed from global dominance has dulled our senses.

Delight me with your lies
  • 3/1/2017 2:55:59 PM
NO RATINGS

..

Rbaz observes that "Trying to make sense of a deranged mental process will not yeild rewarding results."

Yeah, but what I'm fascinated – bewildered – astounded – outraged by is that huge chunk of the U.S. populace that apparently want to be lied to, deceived. How do you understand that?

For a long time, Americans were puzzled by Nazi Germany and how a huge chunk of the German population could attend Nazi rallies, eat their Wurst and gulp their Bier, and just watch and as their neighbors – fathers, wives, kids – were snatched up, hauled away to extermination camps, executed in Zyklon gas chambers, then tossed into ovens, all on a massive industrial scale. A lot of this happened during my own lifetime.

How could the German population, in one of the most advanced counties of Europe, renowned for its culture and intellectual and technological accomplishments, be so bamboozled? Now I'm starting to see the same crazy phenomenon here, and having a hard time getting my mind around it.

..

Re: Objective
  • 3/1/2017 12:57:53 AM
NO RATINGS

@Louis - Yes, intellectual integrity? Whole different matter. And yes, with the release of new alternative facts, we willl have to spend more time separating the wheat from the chaff. Why just yesterday, the secretary of education stated that HBCUs were a fine example of school choice. The problem was that HBCUs were established due to a lack of choice; the Jim Crow laws excluded African Americans from many institutions of higher learning. I believe that the secretary was corrected, but some time had to be taken to parse her statement and to correct it. Historical revisionism using alternative facts - yeah, just what we need.

Re: Objective
  • 2/28/2017 6:30:06 PM
NO RATINGS

@Bryan   I agree.  What was pulled off did take some intellectual  agility. But intellectual integrity ?  That's another question altogether.  Now, going forward we will be slower to deal with real facts because alternative ones will be littered all over.    

Just what our Nation and Democracy needed.

Re: Objective
  • 2/28/2017 6:23:12 PM
NO RATINGS

"...We should not poke fun at her because the joke is on us."

 

 

@rbaz     It certainly is .....  I am still trying to figure out how reality can be bent to such a degree.  And this position is gaining speed daily with every news op.

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