It’s not the data, it’s the meaning you give it

I love TED talks. They always teach me something new. Cool ideas and new perspectives are like shiny toys to me, things I can play with endlessly.

In this talk, Susan Etlinger discusses how critical thinking can sometimes get overwhelmed by the ocean of data and facts that wash over us daily. With all this stuff vying for our attention, it’s easy to see how we can be swayed by stories that seem true — things get lodged in our brain, cemented there by our emotions, even before we can logically assess whether the data can be trusted.

But then she told a personal story that really resonated with me. I think the point was: It’s not the data, it’s not the metrics of a situation that counts. It’s how you add the information up, how you put the pieces together — and what pieces you choose — that leads to truth or falsehood.

Facts are just facts. What they mean depends on the person who is interpreting the data.

The story she told was about her son, who was diagnosed with autism at age 2. No verbal communication, little eye contact, none of the gestures that usually accompany or, on occasion, substitute for our words. But still he was a happy and evidently much-loved kid.

At that moment, I was pointing at the computer screen going, “My son too! My son was exactly like that!” Not verbal at all — in fact, he didn’t seem to understand language. Spoken words zipped past so fast that by the time he’d figured out the first comment, the conversation had gotten away from him.  But he was happy and sweet and funny and creative.

And just like her son, mine learned how to read and write long before he could carry on a conversation. He was more resourceful than we even knew — he used his electronic spelling toys to learn words, and then watched movies with the subtitles turned on to teach himself sentences. Then he watched the movies again, over and over, matching up the expressions and emotions with the spoken dialogue so that he could master the nuances.

Of course, it wasn’t always smooth sailing. When he was five years old, he watched Star Wars: Episode 4 repeatedly. Over and over, he saw Luke and Han Solo in the control room of the Death Star as they learned that Princess Leia was scheduled for termination. Han Solo doesn’t care.

Frustrated and furious, Luke bursts out, “But they’re going to kill her!”

Over and over, my son watched this exchange — and finally he concluded that if you really really want something, and people are indifferent to your wishes, the proper thing to say was, But they’re going to kill her!

So when a day-care lady told him that this other kid was leaving with her parents, and she would be taking her toy (which he had been playing with), he shouted this alarming sentence. It wasn’t that he knew of some sinister plot — he just didn’t want to give the toy back, and if you’re frustrated and people aren’t doing what you want, this is what you say. Hey, it worked for Luke Skywalker, didn’t it?  But this whole train of logic took a certain amount of explaining by me …

Anyway, by now my son has gotten pretty good at verbal communication. I’m proud of that, but I’m even more proud of how he found a work-around for the challenges that he’s faced.

In this TED talk, Susan Etlinger mentioned Ronald Reagan’s line, “Facts are stupid things.”  I agree, facts are stupid things. Slippery things. Things that don’t mean what you think they mean. You’ve got to add them up in the right way, or you’ll miss the truth.

And that’s a fact.

Just when you think things are getting better…

About 5 years ago, I worked for a group that promoted a particularly effective reading program for youngsters who were struggling to learn to read. They had decades worth of data that proved their system worked.

However, there are two opposing theories on how kids should learn to read. Academics in the field of reading fight like rabid dogs over these theories. It’s political, too, because both groups want to convince the government that their approach is the best. There’s a lot of money and influence to be had.

Anyway, after years of quietly earnest efforts to convince teachers of the merits of their program based on the data they’d accumulated, the people I worked for suddenly found themselves embroiled in a nasty, mud-slinging political fight. Suddenly it was all about cost-savings and powerful friendships, instead of learning curves and student success. One day in the middle of it all, my boss sighed, “I never expected to become an activist at my age!”

Now when I see a discussion brewing about gun control, or about misogyny, I sigh.

I never expected to become an activist at my age, either, but it’s getting harder and harder to avoid sticking up for what I believe in. My temper is growing shorter and my tolerance for pig-headed ignorance is waning fast.

Guns: Nobody needs them. If someone wants to practice target shooting, let them go to a range and shoot, then leave their guns locked up in a vault there. As for the Second Amendment? Life has changed a lot since the Revolutionary War. If you want to defend yourself against tyranny, your best weapon nowadays is a computer, not a gun.

Misogyny: I’m shocked by the hatred that gets directed at women when they point out that the present patriarchal system is wrong. Is our society so broken that people aren’t allowed to express an opinion without getting threats of death and mutilation?  Furthermore, people shouldn’t be forced to live their lives by arbitrary rules just because they happened to be born male or female. If they’re not hurting anybody, why is it such a difficult thing to just let people be themselves?

When I was younger, I thought that by now I’d find myself living in a more civilized, more tolerant society. But I guess I was wrong.