Posted by: Kristen Hicks | April 16, 2010

Personal Perspectives in Data Interpretation

The New York Times has done a wonderful job of demonstrating how different people can take away wildly different information from the same set of data.

In response to a recent survey they performed, and perhaps a bit inspired by tax day, they invited a number of writers and commentators to weigh in on the meaning of the results the survey revealed about self-proclaimed members of the tea party movement:

http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/15/what-tea-party-backers-want/?hp

To me, the most fascinating thing about reading the varied responses is that, rather than teaching me anything new about the tea party movement, these responses offer a lesson in how people interpret data according to the personal perceptions they bring to it.

I’m not sure if any of the people weighing in on the survey results here changed any of their opinions about the tea party movement based on the information at hand–the same data is used to back up interpretations that are essentially in contradiction to each other.  I don’t know that any of them are entirely right or wrong in their analysis; I think it’s entirely possible that contradictory elements exist within the tea party movement itself and that’s lent itself to some pretty complex survey results that can be reasonably interpreted in a number of ways. But ultimately here, we learn much more about the people commenting on the survey than on the people from the survey they comment on.

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