The data revolution

Have you ever seen data used to make two opposing arguments? For example, one study concludes you should use margarine instead of butter, and another study concludes the opposite. Many people simply dismiss these studies, thinking that we should not make decisions based on data because the conclusions will always be too fuzzy. Many others look at the data and conclude that one study is right and the other is wrong. 

Not that long ago it was fine for many citizens, Christians and non-Christians alike, to live in somewhat blissful ignorance about how to draw conclusions from data. For the most part, Statistics (the discipline most directly charged with the task of systematically considering how best to draw conclusions from data), was relegated to a single college course that most everyone hated (see graph) – left to be practiced by a small, sub-culture of nerd-dom.

How quickly things have changed. Today, data is ubiquitous – financial, medical, political, environmental, social, even cultural and religious! Our culture has seen a massive change in the way decisions are regularly made by organizations and individuals. No longer is personal experience and expertise the driving force. The new driving force is data.

Why it matters
There is much good in these recent changes. Real-time data on crime, severe weather, poverty and disease outbreaks have the opportunity to influence people’s lives for the better. More timely and effective intervention strategies can be developed and informed decisions can be made. These recent changes promise to continue to help bring God’s shalom nearer.

However, the pendulum has already swung too far, as society has sought to over-emphasize the result of better data. In short, societal forces seem to suggest that once we have all the data, we will have all the answers. We will solve the world’s problems. Data will give us clear, black and white answers. That somehow once we have better data, the answers will be as clear as 2+2=4.

If only it were that easy. As Christians, we know how the world will be saved, and it’s not by data. So, while we wait for that day, what should we think about the role of data? In our daily lives? In our schools? In our churches? In our families?

As with so many societal changes, a balanced approach is appropriate. God gave us the ability to observe the world around us. Recently, he blessed us with technology that has rapidly advanced our ability to observe the world, as well as to store and access the observations that technology makes (data). Now it is our responsibility to use this tidal wave of data well.

Our observations about God’s good creation tell us much about its creator, its infinite complexities, its order and its beauty. Our observations also do much to reveal to us the fallen nature of our current world. We must not shy away from what our observations tell us. A survey of our congregation might tell us what its members are most worried about. An analysis of poverty statistics might identify neighbourhoods most in need of outreach. More broadly, an analysis of treatment protocols may lead to a breakthrough in human disease and an analysis of the stock market may lead your investment portfolio to do well.

What you should do about it
However, we must walk carefully so that we never feel as if the data we gather will be the ultimate answer, or even that the data we gather will necessarily give us “all the answers.” Gathering the correct data, understanding the data’s context and understanding its limitations are all critical. God has blessed us with mental abilities, creativity and understanding that can always be used to help interpret data appropriately. We should never think that a single number, chart or graph can capture all of the nuances of the argument being presented. Instead, we must listen well and with humility to the stories beyond and around the data to understand what we have observed.

Data, and the ability to reason from it, are powerful tools. The recent technology-driven explosion in the collection, storage and analysis of data is not something from which we can or should try to escape. Instead, let’s embrace what data can tell us. While simultaneously understanding what it cannot tell us about many aspects of the world that God has made.

Data is changing the way we live and understand the creation. I pray it may also be an opportunity for all of us to better understand its Creator, his creation and how we can best care for it

  • Dr. Nathan Tintle is Associate Professor of Statistics at Dordt College, in Sioux Center, Iowa where he resides with his wife and three young children.

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