Click to learn more about author Michael D. Shaw.
We need to update Mark Twain’s distinction between figures that do not lie and liars who figure. We need the following addendum: Data may or may not be dispositive, but every piece of data (and all of our metadata) must have a citation.
We need this update, not because we should ascribe bad intentions to authors and data users whose data refutes our assumptions, but because there is too much data that circulates without attribution; which results in costly mistakes and erroneous conclusions; which weakens suppositions—for professional ends or practical reasons, depending on the situation—without acknowledging the work of so few who do so much, oftentimes in obscurity, to advance our understanding of a particular subject.
We need to be more scrupulous about data, which does not mean we have to meet the most rigorous standards of scholarship. We do, however, have a moral duty to review data and ensure we do not inadvertently plagiarize articles, not fill in correct tables and columns in our spreadsheets, or miss a single footnote.
We need to do these things to keep ourselves honest, so we may avoid honest mistakes and not invite others to malign our work. If we forget to source our findings or find that most people do not check our sources, we will damage more than our reputation; we will destroy the reputability of data itself, treating it as a disposable commodity to win arguments—and earn grants—at the expense of academic honor, business success, and individual integrity, never mind the truth.
We need to popularize data, not politicize it. The latter is increasingly common, in my opinion, because too many people use numbers to numb their opponents into submission. Too many misrepresent data, and many more seem to manufacture their own numbers on the spot, without sharing their studies or citing their sources.
Data must not become another armament in a war between the incredulous and the irrational. If reason is to triumph, and there is reason enough for this war to end, we must demand more of ourselves and hold everyone to the same rules.
The rules need not be vast, but they must compel us to be virtuous, regarding the data we reference and the authenticity of the research we use. Absent these simple rules, we will rue the day—I fear the hour is near—when data will be too controversial to convince critics to change their opinions and too incendiary to be of interest to cynics.
Our job, then, is to elevate data by defending its value. The values we choose to uphold will determine the outcome of this conflict.
If we respect the importance of data, if we want others to respect our work though they may respectfully disagree with our conclusions, if we want comity to prevail and professionalism to be commonplace, we should be transparent about the data we use.
The more we follow this advice, the less likely we will be to impeach our results and ruin our research. The sooner we adopt this philosophy, the more confident we can be about the clarity of the data we cite.