(30 seconds of web searching didn’t uncover one of my favorite cartoons – a solid, no-nonsense business man at his desk, reading a magazine titled “Raw Data”. So you’ll just have to imagine it.)

Two items drifted across my computer screen recently brought to our attention by author and inventor Hans Schantz:

First off, a way-cool map

This is a way-cool map, but brought up a few questions. I responded:

Fascinating. Does this show that Europeans are much better at keeping track of their battles, engage in more formal battles, some combination, or what?

He didn’t know. I didn’t see this information on the map’s web page, but I didn’t really search hard, either. And:

Big picture data collection/validation problems are often ignored. e.g., what’s a battle? 10 guys throwing rock? 20? How about spears? Is a siege a battle? How about an invasion, with little resistance? All those Italian Renaissance ‘battles’ w/ mercenaries & few/no casualties?

A few other considerations: 10 guys throwing rocks might, indeed, be a battle if we’re talking Irish villages of 1,500 years ago or conflicts between hunter-gatherer tribes, while a hundred men with machine guns slugging it out on the periphery of major battle lines might not even qualify as a footnote. Was the bombing of Nagasaki a battle? Why or why not? And so on.

I dig a good map as much as anyone, and admire clever representations of data. But, alas! experience has taught me the sad truth: few, if any, popular maps/data representations are worth the electronic media they are encoded in. This map says, at a glance, that Europeans have many more recorded battles than anybody else. One is sore tempted to think, therefore, Europeans are just that much more violent than other peoples.

Well? Does the map actually say that? We can’t tell without a boatload more information. We do know that, in general, Europeans (and Southwest Asians and Egyptians) were very much into written (and engraved – you get the picture) records than most other cultures at most other times.

Next, this movie of the sun at various wavelengths and enhanced various ways.

Really beautiful stuff, and glorious to see the coronal mass ejections and the magnetic field lines.

But, obviously, we, meaning actual human beings, are not ‘seeing’ any of this directly. All the images of the sun are heavily filtered and enhanced to give us these views. This is true not only here, where simply looking at the sun would blind us, but also for all those glorious Hubble pictures and the fly-by images we get of the planets and other objects in the solar system.

This is a different kind of data problem: we’re trusting that the technicians that worked on this are trying to show us what’s there, in a way. What’s there is, strictly speaking, mostly invisible to us – too bright, too dim, not enough contrast, and so on. I trust the technicians are trying merely to give us the most beautiful and informative pictures they can, mostly because that serves both their mission and their interests. Not so much on the battles map, because it could be used to serve a popular political position. Not saying the map makers are necessarily doing that, just that is very easily could be done. Examples of just such underhanded dishonesty are unfortunately legion.

Data points get made into facts, as Mike Flynn often points out, via the assumptions and theories that surround their collection and presentation. No great landmines in these two examples, but even here it bears keeping in mind.


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

One thought on “Data”

  1. To your point about images of celestial objects, one fascinating thing is to see images of planets as they would appear in true color to the naked eye. The starkest contrast is, I think, between what Venus would actually look like (an almost featureless yellowish white ball) and the much more common Mariner 10 images that show a yellow planet with well defined cloud lines which are derived from radar (if I recall correctly). You can see some true color images here:

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