Data Illiteracy: A Bigger Problem than the Data Scientist Shortage?

Loraine Lawson
Slide Show

The Real Life of a Data Scientist

It’s obvious that data is making major headways in terms of its role in our lives. That’s good news for data management workers, but as I discussed in my previous post, the push to become data-driven also raises some serious questions about our ability to use data in responsible, appropriate ways.

You may not think that’s IT’s problem, but I disagree. As decisions become more data-driven, I think data modelers, data managers, CIOs and other IT data workers have a professional and perhaps moral obligation to help guide its use, at least in terms of insuring that the findings remain valid.

Frankly, I’m worried that data illiteracy might be a major barrier to embracing data-driven leadership.


As a world, we don’t even have enough data scientists to meet the job demand within four years. That’s pretty sad, when you think about how long we’ve been building databases and collecting large data sets. We’ve long known math skills aren’t where they should be, and I’m 95 percent sure math is a key part of analyzing data.

Also, statistics is a very small part of most high school math programs, and we already have a math literacy problem in the U.S., which is going to bleed into how people understand and interpret data. When it is taught, the focus is on the math of creating the statistics, rather than discussing how data can be manipulated or misused.

Even many college programs require only one statistics course—and in my case, I could take logic instead (a discipline that actually helps a lot with what constitutes a reasonable use of data, I think).

This should give data people pause: If business users are data illiterate, what might be the consequences of giving them more access to data and analytics tools without more education about how to use data?

I’ve already shared recent articles that demonstrate algorithms can outperform human judgment — but generally, we refuse to accept that and often go against what the data suggests. How much of that is ego and how much of that is ignorance about data and analytics?

Then, the question becomes whether every job lends itself to being data-driven in the first place. According to teacher Elizabeth A. Natale in The Courant:

Unlike my engineer husband who runs tests to rate the functionality of instruments, I cannot assess students by plugging them into a computer. They are not machines. They are humans who are not fazed by a D but are undone when their goldfish dies, who struggle with composing a coherent paragraph but draw brilliantly, who read on a third-grade level but generously hold the door for others.



Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Feb 3, 2014 9:36 AM Marcus Quintilian Marcus Quintilian  says:
Alas for the education profession in an age of data-driven decision making. On the one hand superintendents blithely promote illiterates to high school because they have good manners and on the other they bemoan the fact that "half of our students are reading below average" (that being the case by definition.) Getting a doctorate in data analysis did not help me. Instead of parsing out the various sources of variance, my principal selected the fad de jour and then insisted we collect data to support his decision. Reply
Feb 11, 2014 9:06 AM Barbara Barbara  says:
Hire me. *Qualified data scientists'. omg gotta have a data scientist!! Take the time to find one who will contribute to the company's knowledge base. Even take time to choose one that you can trust. Trust is built slowly by track record. data scientists have to have the courage to qualify their results and be willing to say, 'I dunno'. Reply

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