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Data: Listen. Learn.

Data can be used to tell some surprisingly deep and memorable stories.

Over the course of the election campaign a few weeks ago, it was intriguing to see how all the parties used data, as well as words, to fight their respective corners.

But while we’re often quick to question the words we hear, are we sometimes guilty of taking data at face value? Maybe it should come with a bit of a health warning – data can effectively disguise a great deal of baloney in its apparent precision.

In today’s ‘Big Data’ world, numbers and data ‘visualisations’ are routinely served up to the public as a means of backing up peoples’ viewpoints.

Back in 1914 Oxford philosophy professor John Alexander Smith told his students, “nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you, save only this: if you work hard and intelligently, you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot.”

For him, one of the greatest skills his students could gain was that of detecting when someone is talking half-truths. He advised his students to listen to what other people are saying but, importantly, to then form their own opinions about what was being said.

In the same way that we all need to listen to words, we need to listen to data too, and hear what it’s really saying and why that might be: the What, the Why, the When, the Where and the Who.

As Rudyard Kipling once said:

“I keep six honest serving-men

They taught me all I knew;

Their names are What and Why and When

And How and Where and Who …”

Written by Helen Trimm, Insight Manager at Now

Read: Be Curious