False Data: Pie Charts Are Not Made of Pie

I’ve got a question for you: What can false data teach us? I know what you’re thinking: This is like a set-up, right? False data is false and teaches us nothing. But you’d be wrong, because everything has a lesson. That’s the teacher in me talking. Also, “everyone is an example, sometimes the example is bad” and “there are no stupid questions.” Actually, I would never say that. There are a lot of stupid questions. It’s why there is a syllabus. The main thing false data can teach us is that anything can be justified with numbers, even when the numbers are totally made up. This is true for 99% of data collected from universities and 9 out of 10 professors agree.

False data persists throughout the world, and is ever-present in media and news, unsurprisingly. I mean, there’s a solid reason why professors don’t let you use Wikipedia as a source in your research essay. Unfortunately, false data is being used as though it were real data in other, more insidious places. Today’s fake data comes to you from the halls of education.

I’m not talking about the badly sourced student paper that quotes a crowd-written, online encyclopedia verbatim, I’m talking about actual quantitative information gathered by scholars in order to either prove a thesis or rationalize funding. (And to be clear, I’m not talking about all scholars and data, so don’t get your academic undies in a bunch.) But it happens all the time, and it’s incredibly easy to come up with false data and then turn it into a fancy, eye-catching data-display that looks totally legit. Let me give you an example.

The state I live in has made up some silly laws that suggest our students’ learning at state educational facilities (i.e. the state universities) can be adequately and accurately plotted using quantitative data. Well, that’s not only ridiculous, it’s logistically nightmarish. Why? Because you can’t tell how much a student has learned based on one grade on one assignment, which is the only data the state is collecting, charting in Excel, and presenting with PowerPoints to idiot politicians who are looking to vote professors off of the higher ed island. Seriously, how will a single point of data demonstrate the occurrence of learning for students? Sure, if you collect enough of these points, you have a lot of data. But is it useful data? I guess it may prove that this state is full of average people. The bell curve is called that for a reason.

So what can false data teach us? Well, it can teach us that data used in government is typically a waste of time for just about everyone. The teachers at the class level waste time “collecting” this data, which by the way, is extra work for already exhausted instructors at the end of the semester. If instructors forget to submit this extra work, it can be easily fabricated to cut corners. Did I mention the part where the data itself is easily made up? Because that’s kind of important. I’m not saying that data is being made up for certain, but I am saying it’s easy to do. Someone in the chain of command has a stake in making sure enough data has been collected to make the Excel file look full when it’s presented to the higher-ups. The weakest link here is reliance on numerical data as representative of the complex and impossible-to-quantify concept of learning, which may or may not be faked. Also, this is why grading sucks. Did learning occur? Half the class got C’s so . . . yes? C’s get degrees.

But, it’s this data—fabricated, refined, massaged, misrepresented, turned into brightly colored pie charts—that is part of how the state determines who gets money. Because clearly, the better your pie chart is, the more deserving of new stadium seats you are. Mmmm . . . pie chart. This is the downside of bureaucracy. I’m not sure what the upside is. Perhaps it’s that I don’t have to personally arrange for the waxing of my office floor.

I haven’t even gotten to the false data present in all sorts of other government documentation upon which our great nation was founded, but rest assured, it’s there. Statistics aren’t neutral, and trusting that some numbers in a chart can tell us whether what we are doing is working is a terrible plan for education. That said, however, I’m not sure how to provide oversight in a more qualitative way. I’m sure the dirty word “socialism” is part of the answer. My bad language here just raised the rating on this blog from PG to PG-13.

In summation, false data teaches us that bureaucrats like pie.