Evidence Soup
How to find, use, and explain evidence.

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Friday, 26 April 2013

We've got to stop drooling at shiny data visualizations and keep searching for non-obvious evidence.

Yes, we want people to provide hard evidence supporting their claims. But aren't some things just too obvious to bother with? Shouldn't we use our talents to discover things we don't already know?

Fbfriends_wolfram2I like a shiny data visualization as much as the next guy, but recent details about Facebook analysis made me wonder why some great minds (with great resources) are focusing on some pretty unimportant stuff.

Here's what happened. Stephen Wolfram - who is certainly much smarter than me - released findings from his Wolfram|Alpha Personal Analytics for Facebook project. Among the revelations is that we have a peak number of friends around age 20, with that number slowly dwindling as we reach our 70s.

Sort of like the actual world, wouldn't you say? Doesn't this just confirm what we already know, only with a cool, crowd-sourced, data-donation methodology and attractive data visualization?

Doesn't pass the "six smart people" test. This reminds me of something Rita Gunther McGrath has talked about. She, too, is critical of obvious / we-already-know-that research, saying that if "six smart people in a room" can immediately see it, then it isn't something that needs formalized research. (Rita's a smart one, and I suggest following her at @rgmgrath).

Fbfriends_wolfram

The Daily Mail covered this with the headline "Growing old on Facebook: Search data reveals we talk more about the weather and  politics as we age." (Sadly, reading their story, it's tough to tell if they're being sarcastic or not.) Wolfram found we accumulate clusters of friends as we grow older - with the average 35-year-old having four clusters (again, no kidding: neighbors, work friends, friends from back home, etc.).

Wolfram has done some great stuff, such as A New Kind of Science. I know social network analysis can be important, and reveal useful things about how new knowledge develops. Let's see more of that.

Happy Fun-with-Evidence Friday. Have a great weekend, everybody.

Comments

Carolyn, Thank you for your smart, funny comments. Really enjoy what you write.

I often wonder if I'm the only one who doesn't worship at the Temple of Edward Tufte: Cool arty diagrams, yes, but I want to know *why* things are happening; the *what* is important but only as a first step to finding answers. And as you rightly pointed out, the #QuantifiedSelf movement is similarly self-indulgent.

(I ask people who say they loved the Tufte seminar what difference it will make in their work, and never in my unscientific sample has anyone had a concrete answer. Or maybe I'm just envious of his beautiful books and enormous success.)

Wishing you all the best.
-Tracy

Thank you, Tracy, for this report on what I call the Department of the Bleedin' Obvious, and also for introducing me to Rita's "six smart people" test. Simple. Brilliant.

Although Rita's test may determine that an already-known subject "isn't something that needs formalized research", this likely won't deter the Quantified Selfers of the world from wanting to formalize it in some cool tech fashion.

Steven Wolfram is indeed a brainiac, but anybody who tracks decades of his computer keystrokes (just because he can) is hardly a person who's reluctant to study what doesn't need to be.

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