Playing with Data

A virtual cult of the spreadsheet has formed, complete with gurus and initiates, detailed lore, arcane rituals – and an unshakable belief that the way the world works can be embodied in rows and columns of numbers and formulas.

I heard this quote from “A Spreadsheet Way of Knowledge,” written in 1984 by Steven Levy after the introduction of spreadsheet software, in a recent episode of Planet Money titled “Spreadsheets.”

As I learn more about quantitative data analysis, I’m excited about all of the things I can do with it. I enjoy thinking about the data and trying to understand how to use it. But I’m cautious. If I learned anything from studying anthropology, it was a certain amount of skepticism about data — and quantitative data in particular. Although I’m aware that even qualitative data can be heavily manipulated, and I’m grateful for what I’m learning to do with quantitative data, I remain constantly concerned about how numbers can oversimplify, obscure, and deceive. As Levy wrote:

Yet all these benefits will be meaningless if the spreadsheet metaphor is taken too much to heart. After all, it is only a metaphor. Fortunately, few would argue that all relations between people can be quantified and manipulated by formulas. Of human behavior, no faultless assumptions – and so no perfect model — can be made.

Image by Jon Newman (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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