The Data Detective: Ten Easy Rules to Make Sense of Statistics by Tim Harford

Published in February of 2021.

For higher ed readers, Tim Harford’s The Data Detective arrives at an interesting time. We are all motivated to make data-driven decisions around how our institutions should respond to evolving COVID-19 public health situation.

(Note: After writing this sentence about academic leaders making data-driven decisions, I realize that this is more assumption than fact. Future research might want to look at how colleges and universities made their decisions during the pandemic.)

One idea to help colleges and universities make better decisions about operations during COVID-19 would be to require all decision-makers to read and discuss The Data Detective.

Is it a thing for provosts (or whoever runs the COVID-19 response process) to assign reading? Can we imagine a scenario where a campus group or committee charged with making data-driven recommendations spent one of the meetings talking about a book?

As an academic who spent his formative years mostly teaching, I’ve never quite shaken instinct to assign reading. In my perfect imaginary alt-ac career universe, every meeting would be part book-clubbing.

The reason that I think that The Data Detective is well suited for these postsecondary times is that Harford provides the reader with a framework for how to think about statistics. This framework, developed across the book’s ten chapters as rules (or commandments), is nicely applicable to a broad range of decisions that rely on (or should rely on) data.

Harford’s ten rules for using statistics are:

  1. Search your feelings
  2. Ponder your personal experience
  3. Avoid premature enumeration
  4. Step back and enjoy the view
  5. Get the backstory
  6. Ask who is missing
  7. Demand transparency when the computer says no
  8. Don’t take statistical bedrock for granted
  9. Remember that misinformation can be beautiful, too
  10. Keep an open mind

In the final chapter, Harford integrates all these rules with what he calls the golden rule of data-driven analysis. That is the commandment always to be curious.

Of course, sound statistical reasoning in higher ed should not be restricted to our COVID-19 response. Those of us who work in campus units such as centers for teaching and learning (CTLs) and other similar campus units have been pushing for years for more evidence-based choices in the educational technologies and instructional methods that our schools adopt. (See Justin Reich’s superb book Failure to Disrupt if you want to check out an entire book on this topic). 

Going back to COVID, higher ed, and The Data Detective – we are now at the point where decisions will have to be made about how our colleges and universities will be run in the months ahead.

Possible questions include: At what point will all students come back to campus if that has not already happened? When will face-to-face courses fully return? Will classroom teaching be done differently, how so, and for how long? How might we make decisions about campus face-to-face interactions for immunocompromised students, faculty, and staff? What levels of density will we be comfortable with campus building and at campus events?

The first step in figuring out the post-pandemic university will be figuring out which questions to ask. The Data Detective provides a useful reminder that the areas subjected to statistical analysis are never values neutral. What we choose to measure or gather data on is a reflection of a set of priorities, biases, and beliefs. In making data-driven decisions, we should always be asking what data are missing.

Not all books should be read through a higher ed lens. Not every book should be a tool for helping us figure out how to help navigate our schools through the pandemic. Tim Harford is a wonderful writer. I’ve read everything he’s written since his first book, The Undercover Economist, which came out in 2005. 

Still, at this time, my mind is mostly on how COVID-19 will change higher education. Maybe after we get through this crazy time, I’ll turn my thoughts to some other giant challenge. (Leading contender: higher ed’s response to climate change).

If you are a numbers geek or a statistical nerd – or just like hanging out with these folks – you will enjoy and appreciate The Data Detective. No thinking about the post-pandemic university required.

What are you reading?

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