Ordinal Malpractice

March 19th, 2020

We love to put things in order. “Which college is best, second best, third best, etc., and how can I get my kid into one near the top of the list?” “I love God, Mom, America, and apple pie, in that order.” “Formal education consists of elementary school, middle school, high school, undergraduate school, and finally graduate school, if you’re lucky.” “Our best salesperson is John, second best is Mary, Sally is third, and poor Harold is at the bottom of the list.” We sometimes forget, however, that when we sequence things, even when that sequence is based on a quantitative measure (e.g., salespeople ranked by sales revenues), the order itself is merely ordinal, not quantitative. The company’s top salesperson, John, might be mediocre at best, and the second-best salesperson, Mary, might sell but a smidgen less than John or perhaps only half as much. A #2 ranking merely reveals that Mary sells less than John, not how much less.

An ordered list that appears along the axis of a graph, such as the ranked list of salespeople below, is called an ordinal scale.

An interval scale, like the one below, is quite different.

An interval scale subdivides a continuous range of quantitative values into equal intervals, in this case a range extending from 0 to 500, subdivided into intervals of 100 each. One of the most common interval scales that we use in quantitative data analysis involves ranges of time (e.g., from years 1950 through 2020) subdivided into equal periods (e.g., the 1950s, 1960s, etc.). Interval scales, by definition, are quantitative in nature; ordinal scales are not. In general, all we can say about ordinal scales is that the items have a meaningful order, nothing more. Along an interval scale, quantitative distances between adjacent items are always equal, but along an ordinal scale, distances between items typically vary.

A Likert scale is an example of an ordinal scale that is often used in social science research and surveys. Likert scales allow people to respond to questions, such as “How often do you drink more than a single serving of an alcoholic beverage in a day?”, by selecting from an ordered list such as the following:

    1. Never
    2. Seldom
    3. Occasionally
    4. Frequently
    5. Always

Notice that the items have a meaningful order, but the scale itself is not quantitative. The difference in the frequency of occurrence between “Never” and “Seldom” is not necessarily the same as the difference between “Seldom” and “Occasionally.” Item #5 (“Always”) is not five times greater than item #1 (“Never”). Even though items in ordinal scales are often labeled with numbers (e.g., “1 – Never” and “5 – Always”), the numbers only indicate a sequence (item #1, item #2, etc.), not quantities.

Ordinal scales often provide meaningful and useful ways to arrange items in a list. I often arrange the values that appear in a graph in order from low to high or high to low because it is easier to compare values when those that are close to one another in magnitude are near one another in the graph. You can see this by comparing the two graphs below: one ordered by SAT scores from high to low and the other arranged alphabetically by student names.

As I’ve already mentioned, when values are ranked, the ranking itself is not and shouldn’t be treated as quantitative. Shouldn’t, but often is.

Here are three examples of salespeople ranked by sales revenues, displayed graphically. Notice how differently the salespeople vary in sales performance among these three graphs even though the rankings are the same.

For most purposes, it is the sales revenues themselves in these examples that are important. They deserve far more attention than the rankings.

Let’s get back to Likert scales for a moment. Assigning numeric values to items in a Likert scale is not appropriate, in my opinion, but it is routinely done. For example, social science research that uses a questionnaire to measure depression among a population, based on the following Likert scale, could simply add up the numbers associated with the items to produce an overall 5-point depression score.

    1. Never
    2. Seldom
    3. Occasionally
    4. Frequently
    5. Always

Measuring people’s depression in this manner, however, does not qualify as truly quantitative.

If ordinal quantification is misleading, why is it done? Mostly, for convenience. It allows people to represent something that is difficult to measure with a simple number, but that number is inherently misleading. Sometimes this is also done for another reason: to lend Likert scales an inflated sense of accuracy, precision, significance, and objectivity when making research claims. A great deal of social science and survey-based performance reporting (e.g., customer satisfaction surveys) is based on quantified Likert scales. In my opinion, this renders any claims that are based on them suspect.

In science and data sensemaking (including data visualization), it is important to understand the difference between interval scales and ordinal scales: the former are quantitative; the latter are not. Both play a role, but their roles should not be conflated.

A Thinker’s Guide to Artificial Intelligence

March 5th, 2020

I just finished reading the book about Artificial Intelligence (AI) that I’ve been craving for years: Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans, by Melanie Mitchell. More than any other book on this hot but largely misunderstood topic, this book describes AI in clear and accessible terms. It cuts through the hype to present a sane assessment with no agenda apart from a desire to inform. Reading this book, you’ll likely discover that AI is quite different from what you imagined.

Melanie Mitchell qualifies as a second-generation pioneer in the field of AI. Beginning in the mid-1980s she earned her Ph.D. in the field under the supervision of Douglas Hofstadter, the previous generation pioneer whose book Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid inspired many to pursue AI. She continues to do research and development in AI as a professor at Portland State University and at the Santa Fe Institute. I’d wager that few people, if any, understand AI in general better than she does. In this book she explains what AI is, covers its history from inception through today, describes the approaches that have been pursued (symbolic AI, neural networks, machine learning, etc., including explanations for how these approaches work), and presents the strengths and limitations of AI in unvarnished terms. She does all of this with a practical eloquence that is rare among technology writers.

Should we be concerned about AI? You bet, but probably not for the reasons that you imagine. AI has never exhibited anything that qualifies as general intelligence (i.e., thinking as humans do), despite years of diligent effort. Will it ever? Nobody knows. In the meantime, however, we do know that computers can perform “narrow AI” tasks that are quite helpful. We should make sure that AI is only applied in ways that are truly useful and understood. If we can’t understand how AI’s results are produced, we can’t trust those results. We must also make sure that AI applications are designed in ways that are both effective and ethical. Current applications exhibit worrisome flaws. As AI researcher Pedro Domingos has said: “People worry that computers will get too smart and take over the world, but the real problem is that they’re too stupid and they’ve already taken over the world.” I agree. We can and should produce better, more useful AI technologies. Knowing that people like Melanie Mitchell are involved in the effort gives me hope—a glimmer, at least—that we just might head in that direction.

Stories in Our Time

March 3rd, 2020

We are surrounded by stories. We spend our lives navigating among and by means of stories. In our ancient past, everyone in a given place and time shared the same stories, and those stories were simple and few. They informed people’s lives and gave them meaning. When circumstances changed, which seldom happened, the stories changed as well.

Today, the stories that inform our lives are countless, often confusing, frequently confused, and locked in vicious combat with one another. This battle is tearing us apart. Stories are not intrinsically good or true. Stories are just narratives that people develop to explain, and to an increasing degree, to persuade. We must reject stories that fail to explain the world and our lives meaningfully, usefully, and truthfully. We must not tolerate stories that incite misunderstanding and hatred. We must choose our stories carefully. If we don’t, someone else will choose them for us.

Proportionally Speaking

March 1st, 2020

As data sensemakers, we spend a great deal of time examining quantitative relationships. Along with distribution, correlation, and time-series relationships, proportion is the other quantitative relationship that plays a significant role in data sensemaking. A proportion is just a relationship between two quantities. If we compare the number of friends that Sally and John each have, Sally’s 20 friends compared to John’s 10 friends is a proportion. It’s really that simple, but confusion often occurs when we communicate proportions.

Much of the confusion probably stems from the fact that proportions can be expressed in several ways: as ratios, fractions, rates, and percentages. The proportion of Sally’s 20 friends compared to John’s 10 can be written as a ratio in either of the following ways: “20 to 10” or “20:10”. This same proportion can also be expressed as “2 to 1” or “2:1”, for these ratios represent the same proportion in which the first value is double the second. This proportion can also be expressed as the fraction “20/10”. The symbol for division (i.e., /) that appears in the fraction indicates that a proportion can also be expressed as the result of division, which is called the rate. In this case, the rate of Sally’s friends to John’s is 2, because 20 divided by 10 equals 2. A rate of 1, expressed as a percentage, is 100%, so the proportion of Sally’s friends to John’s, expressed as a percentage, is 200% (i.e., the rate of 2 multipled by 100%).

All of these expressions of the proportion reveal that Sally has twice as many friends as John. Expressed as a percentage, we could also say that Sally has 100% more friends than John, for Sally’s 200% minus John’s 100% results in a 100% difference. We should express it this way cautiously, however, for people often find “less than” or “greater than” expressions of proportions confusing. When we express a greater than or less than proportion, we must remember to express only the difference between the two values.

Each expression of the proportion above treats Sally’s friends as the point of reference. To get the rate of 2, we began with Sally’s number of friends and divided that by John’s number of friends (i.e., 20 / 10 = 2). The order matters. If we instead treated John’s number of friends as the point of reference, we could express the proportion of John’s 10 friends to Sally’s 20 in each of the following ways: the ratio 10 to 20, 10:20, 1 to 2, or 1:2; the fraction 10/20 or 1/2; the rate of 0.5; the percentage 50%. We could also say that John has 50% fewer friends than Sally (i.e., John’s 50% minus Sally’s 100% equals -50%).

If John lost 8 of his friends, leaving only 2, while Sally maintained all 20 of her friends, we could say that John has 0.1 or 10% the proportion of friends that Sally has. This is fairly straightforward and clear to anyone who understands the basic concepts of rates and percentages. On the other hand, would could also say that John has 90% fewer friends than Sally (10% minus 100% equals -90%), but, as I warned previously, this isn’t nearly as straightforward and clear for many people.

In the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the first two definitions of “proportion” are:

1. A portion, a part, a share, especially in relation to a whole; a relative amount or number.
2. A comparative relation or ratio between things in size, quantity, number, etc.

Both of these definitions fit what we’re discussing here. The sixth definition that appears in the OED, however, which is particular to mathematics, can lead to confusion.

6. MATH. A relationship of equivalence between two pairs of quantities, such that the first bears the same relation to the second as the third does to the fourth.

In other words, when comparing the ratio 1:2 to the ratio 10:20, mathematicians would not just say that they are in proportion but that they actually are a proportion. I mention this only to point out that, if you’re talking to a mathematician about proportions, you might be using the term differently, so be careful. I’ve encountered this problem myself a few times.

A few months ago, I ran across an example of a proportion gone wrong. It appeared on the PBS Newshour broadcast on September 23, 2019 in a segment titled “Judges weigh Trump’s family planning finding rule.” Near the end of the broadcast the following text appeared on the screen:

This is an example of a proportion that has been expressed as the difference between two values (i.e., the average income of Title X patients minus the income that’s defined as the poverty level) rather than more clearly as the relationship between them, but that’s not the only problem here. An income that is 150% below the poverty line makes no sense. An income can’t be more than 100% below the poverty line, for that would produce a negative value and negative income doesn’t make sense in this context. The person who wrote this text must not understand proportions, and apparently the program’s hosts were confused as well, which is all too common. I suspect that they meant to say that 78% of Title X patients have incomes that fall below 150% of the poverty line. In 2019, the U.S. federal poverty level for a family of one was $12,140, so 150% of that is $18,210. It seems reasonable that 78% of people who take advantage of Title X—people who tend to have low incomes and thus are in need of Title X assistance—made less than $18,210 for a family of one, $24,690 for a family of two, $31,170 for a family of three, and so on.

When dealing with proportions, a rate of 1 and a percentage of 100% play an important role. They both express the same equal, one-to-one proportion. In other words, the two values that are being compared are the same. For this reason, we tend to think of proportions as being less than, equal to, or greater than 1 when expressed as a rate or less than, equal to, or greater than 100% when expressed as a percentage. Consistent with the importance of 100%, there is a special type of proportional relationship that is based on 100% of something: the part-to-whole relationship. The whole is 100% of some measure (e.g., total sales revenues) and the parts are lesser percentages into which the whole has been divided (e.g., sales revenues in separate geographical regions, consisting of North, South, East, and West), which add up to 100%. When examining parts of a whole, we spend much of our time comparing the parts to one another. As such, graphical displays of part-to-whole relationships are only effective if they make it easy to compare the parts. Unfortunately, the most popular part-to-whole display—the pie chart—does this job poorly. It is difficult to compare slices of a pie. If you don’t already know why this is so, I recommend that you read my article “Save the Pies for Dessert.” As it turns out, this problem with pie charts is well understood but routinely ignored.

The ways that changes in proportions are expressed are another common source of confusion. Let me illustrate. According to a recent survey, the obesity rate among U.S. adults is now 42%. If we’re told that the obesity rate has increased 40% in the last 20 years, what was the rate in the year 2000? Think about this for a moment. In the year 2000, was the obesity rate 2% (i.e., 2% + 40% = 42%) or was it 30% (i.e., 30% * 140% = 42%)? It depends on how you interpret the words “increased 40%.” People sometimes mistakenly interpret this as a percentage point increase rather than a percentage increase. In this particular case, common sense suggests that the obesity rate must have been 30% in the year 2000, for there’s no way that only 2% of U.S. adults were obese just 20 years ago. Without this context, however, people might be confused.

This increase may be expressed in any of the following ways: “From the year 2000 to the year 2020, the obesity rate among U.S. adults…”

  • “…increased from 30% to 42%.”
  • “…increased 12 percentage points to 42%.”
  • “…increased 40% to 42%.”

Which of the three expressions above would least likely result in confusion? I suspect that the first, “…increased from 30% to 42%”, is the clearest. We could, of course, state the change more thoroughly by saying “…increased 12 percentage points from 30% to 42%” or “increased 40% from 30% to 42%.” When communicating with the general public, extra care in expressing changes in proportions works best.

Communicating proportions isn’t terribly difficult if we’re aware of how people might misinterpret them and take care to express them clearly. If you’re proportionally challenged, I hope this helps.

Logarithms Unmuddled

February 21st, 2020

I often write about topics that I myself have struggled to understand. If I’ve struggled, I assume that many others have struggled as well. Over the years, I’ve found several mathematical concepts confusing, not because I’m mathematically disinclined or disinterested, but because my formal training in mathematics was rather limited and, in some cases, poorly taught. My formal training consisted solely of basic arithmetic in elementary school, basic algebra in middle school, basic geometry in high school, and an introductory statistics course in undergraduate school. When I was in school, I didn’t recognize the value of mathematics—at least not for my life. Later, once I became a data professional, a career that I stumbled into without much planning or preparation, I learned mathematical concepts on my own and on the run whenever the need arose. That wasn’t always easy, and it occasionally led to confusion. Like many mathematical topics, logarithms can be confusing, and they’re rarely explained in clear and accessible terms. How logarithms relate to logarithmic scales and logarithmic growth isn’t at all obvious. In this article, I’ll do my best to cut through the confusion.

Until recently, my understanding (and misunderstanding) of logarithms stemmed from limited encounters with the concept in my work. As a data professional who specialized in data visualization, my knowledge of logarithms consisted primarily of three facts:

  1. Along logarithmic scales, each labeled value that typically appears along the scale is a consistent multiple of the previous value (e.g., multiples of 10 resulting in a scale such as 1, 10, 100, 1,000, 10,000, etc.).
  2. Logarithmic scales make it easy to compare rates of change in line graphs because equal slopes represent equal rates of change.
  3. Logarithmic growth exhibits a pattern that goes up by a constantly decreasing amount.

If you, like me, became involved in data sensemaking (a.k.a., data analysis, business intelligence, analytics, data science, so-called Big Data, etc.) with a meagre foundation in mathematics, your understanding of logarithms might be similar to mine—similarly limited and confused. For example, if you think that the sequence of values 1, 10, 100, 1,000, 10,000, and so on is a sequence of logarithms, you’re mistaken, and should definitely read on.

Before reading on, however, I invite you to take a few minutes to write a definition for each of the following concepts:

  • Logarithm
  • Logarithmic scale
  • Logarithmic growth

In addition to definitions, take some time to describe how these concepts relate to one another. For example, how does a logarithmic scale relate to logarithmic growth? Give it a shot now before reading any further.

Regardless of how much you struggle to define these concepts and their relationships to one another, it’s useful to prime your brain for the topic. Now that you have, let’s dive in.


The logarithm (a.k.a., log) of a number is the power that the log’s base must be raised to equal that number. I realize this definition might not seem clear but hang in here with me. I promise that greater clarity will emerge. Logarithms always have a base (i.e., a number on which it is based). The most common base is 10, expressed as log10, but any number may serve as the base. To determine the log10 value of the number 100, we must determine the power of 10 that equals 100. What this means will become clear in a moment through an example, but before getting to that, let’s review what raising the power of a number means in mathematics.

Raising a number to a power involves multiplying the number by itself a specific number of times. The power indicates how many instances of the number are multiplied. For example, 10 to the power of 3, written as 103 (the 3 in this case is called the exponent), involves multiplying 10 * 10 * 10, which equals 1,000. Raising a number to the power of 1 involves only one instance of that number—there is nothing to multiply—so the number remains unchanged. For example, 101 remains 10. Raising a number to the power of 2 involves multiplying two instances of that number, so 102 is 10 * 10, which equals 100. In these examples so far, the only time multiplication wasn’t involved was with the power of 1. Multiplication is also not involved whenever the exponent is zero or negative. In those cases, raising the power of a number involves division. For example, with the power of 0, rather than multiplying instances of the number by itself, we divide the number by itself, so 100 is equal to 1, for 10 / 10 = 1. Here’s a list of values that result from raising the number 10 to the powers of 0 through 6:

Now that we’ve reviewed what it means to raise a number to a particular power, we can get back to logarithms. Remember that the log of a number is the power that the log’s base must be raised to equal that number. So, to find the log2 value of the number 8, we must determine the power of 2 (the log’s base) that is equal to 8. In other words, we must determine how many times 2 must be multiplied by itself to equal 8. Since 21 = 2 and 22 = 4 (i.e., 2 * 2 = 4) and 23 = 8 (i.e., 2 * 2 * 2 = 8), we know that log2 of 8 is 3. Given this procedure, what is the log10 value of 100? It is 2, for 10 must be raised to the power of 2 (i.e., 10 * 10) to equal 100. What’s the log2 of 64? It is 6, for 2 must be raised to the power of 6 (i.e., 2 * 2 * 2 * 2 * 2 * 2) to equal 64.

So far, we’ve only dealt with logs that result in nice, round numbers, but that isn’t always the case. For example, what is the log2 of 100? The log2 of 64 is 6 and the log2 of 128 is 7, so the log2 of 100 is somewhere between 6 and 7. When expressed to eight decimal places, the log2 of 100 is precisely 6.64385619. What is the log10 of 5? It must be less than 1, because 5 is less than 10. The precise answer is 0.698970004.

Have you ever examined a list of the logarithms associated with an incremental sequence of numbers? Doing this is revealing. Here’s a list of the log2 values for the numbers 1 through 32, with an additional column that shows the proportional relationship between log2 values and the numbers on which they’re based:

Notice that, other than the log2 value of the number 3 (i.e., 1.584963, which is 52.832% of 3), as we read down the list, each log is a decreasing percentage of the number on which it is based. Keep this fact in mind. It will come in handy as we examine logarithmic scales and logarithmic growth.

Logarithmic Scales

A logarithmic scale (a.k.a., log scale) is one in which equal distances along the scale correspond to equal logarithmic distances. Because of the nature of logarithms, each number that typically appears along the scale is a consistent multiple of the previous number. The example below includes a log10 scale along the Y axis.

Along a log10 scale, because the base is 10, each number is 10 times the previous number. The example above begins at 1, but it could begin at any number. For example, a log10 scale could begin at 40 and continue with 400, 4,000, 40,000, and so on, each ten times the previous. A log2 scale that begins with 1 would continue with 2, 4, 8, 16, and so on, each two times the previous. Unlike a linear scale in which the intervals from one number to the next are always equal in value, such as 0, 10, 20, 30, 40, etc., along a log scale the intervals (i.e., the quantitative distances between the labeled values) consistently increase in value, each time multiplied by the base.

The numbers 1, 10, 100, 1,000, 10,000, 100,000, and 1,000,000 in the graph above correspond to logarithms with a base of 10, but those numbers are not themselves logarithms. Instead, they are the numbers from which the logarithms were derived. Here’s the scale that appears along the Y axis of the graph above, this time with the actual log10 values 0 through 6 labeled in addition to the numbers 1 through 1,000,000 from which those logarithms were derived.

We usually label the log scales with the numbers from which the logarithms were derived rather than the logarithms themselves because the former are typically more familiar and useful.

Another characteristic of a log scale that reinforces its nature bears mentioning, which I’ll illustrate below by featuring a single interval only along the Y axis of the graph shown previously.

Notice that the minor tick marks between 1,000 and 10,000 get closer and closer together from bottom to top. This is easier to see if the scale is enlarged and the minor tick marks are labeled, as I’ve done below.

Each interval from one tick mark to the next (1,000 to 2,000, 2,000 to 3,000, etc.) consistently covers a numeric range of 1,000, but the spaces between the marks get smaller and smaller because the differences in the logarithms corresponding to those numbers get smaller and smaller. To illustrate this, I included a column of the log10 values that correspond to each tick mark in the example above. The decreasing distances between the tick marks correspond precisely to the decreasing differences between the log values.

Logarithmic Growth

Because the numbers that typically appear as labels on a log scale are each a consistent multiple of the previous number, if you didn’t already understand logarithms, you might assume that logarithmic growth involves a series of values that are each a consistent multiple of the previous value. Here’s an example of how that might look as a series of values:

In this example, each daily value doubles the previous value. This, however, is not an example of logarithmic growth. It is instead an example of exponential growth (a.k.a., compound growth). With exponential growth, the amount of increase from one value to the next is always greater. Compound interest earned on money in a savings account is an example of exponential growth. As the balance grows, even though the rate of interest remains constant, the amount of growth in dollars consistently increases because of the growing balance. For example, 10% interest on $100 (i.e., $10) would increase the balance to $110 during the first period, and then during the next period, it would be based on $110 resulting in $11 of interest, a dollar more. Even though the interest rate remains constant, because the balance grows from one period to the next, the amount of increase grows as well.

Contrary to exponential growth, logarithmic growth (a.k.a., log growth) exhibits a constant decrease in the amount of growth from one value to the next. In other words, it always grows but it does so to a decreasing degree over time. A simple example is the distance that a bullet travels when you shoot it straight up into the air from the moment it leaves the gun until it reaches its apex, before beginning its descent. The height of the bullet starts off by increasing quickly but those increases constantly decrease in amount from one interval of time to the next due to the pull of gravity.

So, how does log growth relate to log scales? It’s not at all obvious, is it? Good luck finding an explanation on the web that’s understandable if you’re not fluent in mathematics. Here’s a graphical example of log growth, based on the log2 values for the numbers 1 through 64:

I’ve annotated this graph with lines connected to points in time when the logarithm has increased by a whole unit (i.e., from 0 to 1, 1 to 2, etc.). Starting on day 1 the log value is zero and whole-unit increases are subsequently reached on days 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, and 64. Do you recognize this pattern of days along the X axis? It matches the numbers that would appear along a log2 scale that begins with 1. In other words, the intervals between the days on which the logarithms increased by a whole unit consistently grew by a multiple of 2.

Have you noticed that the pattern formed by log growth is the inverse (i.e., flipped top to bottom and left to right version) of the pattern formed by exponential growth? To illustrate this, the graph below displays three different patterns of growth: logarithmic, linear, and exponential.

This inverted relationship between patterns of logarithmic and exponential growth visually confirms the inverted relationship that exists between logarithms and the exponential powers that are used to produce them.

Given the nature of logarithms, what do you think would happen to the shape of the blue exponential line above if I changed the scale along the Y axis from linear to logarithmic? If your answer is that the blue line would now take on the shape of logarithmic growth similar to the orange line above, you’re thinking in the right direction, but you went too far. The nature of logarithms to progressively decrease in the amount that they grow from one to the next would cancel out the nature of exponents to progressively increase in amount that they grow from one to the next, resulting in a linear pattern similar to the gray line in the graph above.

I hope you agree that these concepts actually make sense when they’re explained with clear words and examples. You still might not have much use for logarithms unless your work involves advanced mathematics, but now you’re less likely to embarrass yourself by saying something dumb about them, as I’ve done on occasion.

Context Is for Kings

February 20th, 2020

In season 1, episode 3 of the television series “Star Trek: Discovery,” when faced with a particularly wicked problem the captain of the starship Discovery speaks these words: “Universal law is for lackeys; context is for kings.” I suspect that the writers of this show consciously crafted these words for quotability. They rise to the heights of wisdom that Star Trek occasionally reaches. When I heard these words, I quickly paused the show and ran to my computer to record them because they eloquently expressed an important truth that I’ve been teaching for many years. Simple rules can serve as guides for novices, but experts operate in the more subtle realm of context.

In my work in the field of data visualization, I teach many simple rules of thumb to encourage best practices, but I’m always careful to explain why these guidelines work. I encourage my students to root their decisions in a nuanced consideration of context, not in a simplistic algorithm. When you fully understand why good rules of thumb work well in general, you can identify specific situations when they don’t apply. In other words, you can break the rules when the situation demands it.

Good teachers help people think at the conceptual level, navigating nuance, not merely at the procedural level. We humans are capable of thinking that is more sophisticated than blind obedience to algorithms. Procedural knowledge (“If A happens, then do X; if B happens, then do Y; else do Z.”) exhibits little if any understanding. Conceptual knowledge, on the other hand, allows us to master context, the realm of kings. If you want to become an expert in data visualization (or an any other field), avoid teachers, books, and courses that say “Do it this way” without explaining why. Don’t settle for being a lackey when you can become a king.

Data Sensmaking, Science, and Atheism

January 13th, 2020

I’m an atheist. Despite the stigma that most Americans still attach to atheism, I embrace it without reservation. My perspective as an atheist is tightly coupled with my perspectives as an advocate of science and a data sensemaking professional. Atheism, science, and data sensemaking all embrace evidence and reason as the basis for understanding. All three shun beliefs that are not based on evidence and reason as the enemy of understanding.

I wasn’t always an atheist. Like most Americans born in the 1950s, I was raised as a Christian—in my case, a version of fundamentalist Protestantism known as Pentecostalism. Not satisfied with a nominal commitment to religion, I was that weird kid who carried his Bible with him to high school every day. While still a teenager, I felt called by God into the ministry and pursued that calling as my initial profession. Despite a genuine commitment, however, I sometimes felt a bit uneasy about my faith. From time to time, I was faced with facts and a sense of morality that conflicted with my faith. These conflicts became increasingly difficult to ignore. In my mid-20s, after many dark nights of the soul, I pulled out of the ministry and gradually abandoned my faith altogether while searching for a new foundation to build my life upon. Eventually, science became that foundation. The transition was painful, but also exciting. I went on to study religion in graduate school from an academic perspective (comparative religion, psychology of religion, sociology of religion, history of religion, etc.) because I wanted to better understand the powerful role of religion in people’s lives and in the world at large.

After leaving the ministry, I didn’t embrace atheism immediately. I first spent a few years exploring liberal expressions of religion (e.g., Unitarianism, the Society of Friends, and even Reformed Judaism), hoping to find a like-minded community, but they all had something in common that never felt right to me. That something was faith. As I increasingly embraced science as the best path to understanding, I increasingly recognized faith as a problem. Faith delivers ready-made answers based on authority—end of story—but science encourages open-ended curiosity, continuous self-correction, and discovery.

For many years, I called myself an agnostic. Without reservation, I could say, “I don’t know if a god exists.” Since no one really knows, in a sense everyone is an agnostic, whether they admit it or not. At the time, I didn’t think of myself as an atheist because I misunderstood the term. I thought that an atheist was someone who claimed to know for sure that no gods exist. That isn’t the case. Agnosticism is an epistemological expression—it’s concerned with knowledge, or more precisely, with the lack of knowledge: “I don’t know.” Atheism, on the other hand, is an expression of belief, or more precisely, the absence of belief. An atheist says, “I don’t believe that any gods exist.” One can also embrace a slightly firmer version of atheism that declares “I believe that no gods exist.” Either way, atheism does not claim “I know for sure that no gods exist.” Agnosticism and atheism represent the same epistemological perspective: “I don’t know if any gods exist.” Atheism just goes one step further by extending a lack of knowledge to the realm of belief.

Science resists certainty; it deals in probabilities. Based on the available evidence, something is either likely or unlikely to a statistically calculated degree. I lack belief in gods because I’m not aware of any evidence for their existence. During my years as a Christian, I accepted the Christian god’s existence as a matter of faith. At the time, I made this leap to make sense of the world, but I no longer need faith in a god to make sense of the world or my role in it. If evidence for a god’s existence ever emerges, I’ll reconsider my position.

It bears mentioning that, just as everyone is in a sense an agnostic, whether they realize it or not, everyone is also an atheist. Even if you’re a religious fundamentalist, as I was, you’re also an atheist. This is because, while you believe in your god, you don’t believe in other gods. In other words, in respect to most of the gods that people believe in—all but your own—you’re an atheist. In this respect, you and I are a lot alike. We only differ in that I include one more god on my list of those that I don’t believe in.

Religions codify faith-based beliefs. They declare what is true about the world, about humans, about our role in the world, and, of course, about the role of supernatural beings. They do so without evidence. Faith discourages curiosity and the search for truth. As Richard Dawkins wrote, “One of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding” (The God Delusion, 2008, page 126). As a data sensemaking professional, my commitment to reason and evidence as the basis for understanding puts me at odds with faith.

We can thank the late Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould for the conceptual basis on which many scientists and data sensemakers who are also religious reconcile these conflicting perspectives. Gould proposed that science and religion occupy two “Nonoverlapping Magisteria.” I admire Gould’s work greatly. He was a marvelous scientist who did a great deal to popularize science, but I find this awkward construction intolerable. According to Gould, science has its domain, religion has its domain, and the two don’t overlap. Furthermore, these two domains should respect one another and consistently stick to their own distinct areas of expertise. As explained by Adam Neiblum in his book Unexceptional when describing Gould’s position:

Each magisteria has its own epistemic foundation, each fulfilling a different role in human needs and affairs. Science, epistemologically founded on empirical observation, evidence, data and reason, necessarily deals with facts about the world, while religion, epistemologically founded on personal revelation and faith, deals with values and morality, which have nothing to do with matters of fact about the world. (Unexceptional: Darwin, Atheism and Humanity, Adam Neiblum, 2017, p. 166)

Since the emergence of modern science, it and religion have always co-existed uncomfortably. I suspect that Gould wanted to make science more palatable for religious folks—the majority of Americans—so he separated science and religion into exclusive, non-competing realms.

According to a Pew Research Center survey of scientists (specifically members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science), only 33% believe in a god and over 40% identify themselves as atheists or agnostics (“Scientists and Belief,” Pew Research Center, November 5, 2009, www.pewforum.org/2009/11/05/scientists-and-belief). This is extraordinary in light of the following statistics, also reported by Pew:

The vast majority of Americans (90%) believe in some kind of higher power, with 56% professing faith in God as described in the Bible and another 33% saying they believe in another type of higher power or spiritual force. Only one-in-ten Americans say they don’t believe in God or a higher power of any kind. (“Key Findings about Americans’ Belief in God,” Pew Research Center, April 5, 2018, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/04/25/key-findings-about-americans-belief-in-god/)

The correlation between scientific work and atheism, while extraordinary, is not surprising. Pursuit of science is not necessarily responsible for a lack of theistic belief, but my own exposure to science definitely influenced my departure from theism, and to a great degree.

There is a fundamental problem with Gould’s concept of Nonoverlapping Magisteria: it isn’t scientific. Science is definitely concerned with religion’s claims that the world was created by a god and that supernatural entities (gods, angels, spirits, demons, leprechauns, dead people, etc.) continue to intervene in the world’s affairs. Religion is definitely agitated by the fact that more and more of its territory is being reduced by scientific discoveries. This conflict cannot be defined out of existence. To do so defies the tenets and methods of science.

I reject the notion that morality is the rightful and exclusive domain of religion. Morality does not require religion. To say that it does makes morality an obligation that’s imposed on us by an external authority rather than a personal choice. I am no less moral as an atheist than I was as a Christian. Actually, I am more moral, for my behavior is based entirely on a personal sense of good behavior, never on a belief that I must behave in certain ways because a god demands it. When I was religious, my morality was governed, at least in part, by fear. You don’t dare piss off a god.

As religions develop, they codify morality in various ways, but they don’t create it. Morality began to evolve in social animals before the emergence of Homo sapiens. Certain ways of behaving towards others naturally evolved as moral instincts in all social animals, not just humans. Altruism, justice, and fairness are exhibited quite naturally in our species and in several others as well.

If you’re a scientist, or similarly, if you’re a data sensemaking professional, and you’re also religious, you must come to grips with the conflict that exists between these perspectives. You must divide your life, as Gould proposed, into two distinct realms. You can’t allow your willingness to accept things on faith to influence your work. Professionally, you must always go where the evidence leads you. If you do this successfully in your work, it may become increasingly difficult to do otherwise in your personal life.

Despite the stigma about atheism that still persists, an increasing number of people embrace it as a reasonable position. This is especially true among the young. They are less militant about it than my generation, however. Unlike my generation, many of them haven’t needed to claw their way out of religion. Atheism simply makes sense to them and has from an early age.

As with almost everything that I write about in this blog, this article was prompted by a particular event. Not long ago I was approached by the business school of a nearby religiously affiliated college to help them put together a data analytics program, and potentially, to also teach in the program, so I reviewed their website to find out just how religious they were. Despite the fact that members of the denomination that founded and runs this college are often quite liberal and known for their work as social activists, I found that this college is quite fundamentalist in its statement of faith. Here it is, word for word:

The Trinity
We believe in one eternal God, the source and goal of life, who exists as three persons in the Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In love and joy, God creates and sustains the universe, including humanity, male and female, who are made in God’s image.
God the Father
We believe in God the Father Almighty, whose love is the foundation of salvation and righteous judgment, and who calls us into covenant relationship with God and with one another.
God the Son
We believe in Jesus Christ, the Word, who is fully God and fully human. He came to show us God and perfect humanity, and, through his life, death, and resurrection, to reconcile us to God. He is now actively present with us as Savior, Teacher, Lord, Healer, and Friend.
God the Holy Spirit
We believe in the Holy Spirit, who breathed God’s message into the prophets and apostles, opens our eyes to God’s Truth in Jesus Christ, empowers us for holy living, and carries on in us the work of salvation.
We believe that salvation comes through Jesus Christ alone, to whom we must respond with repentance, faith, and obedience. Through Christ we come into a right relationship with God, our sins are forgiven, and we receive eternal life.
The Bible
We believe that God inspired the Bible and has given it to us as the uniquely authoritative, written guide for Christian living and thinking. As illumined by the Holy Spirit, the Scriptures are true and reliable. They point us to God, guide our lives, and nurture us toward spiritual maturity.
The Christian Life
We believe that God has called us to be and to make disciples of Jesus Christ and to be God’s agents of love and reconciliation in the world. In keeping with the teaching of Jesus, we work to oppose violence and war, and we seek peace and justice in human relationships and social structures.
The Church
We believe in the church as the people of God, composed of all who believe in Jesus Christ, who support and equip each other through worship, teaching, and accountability, who model God’s loving community, and who proclaim the gospel to the world.
Christian Worship
We believe Christ is present as we gather in his name, seeking to worship in spirit and in truth. All believers are joined in the one body of Christ, are baptized by the Spirit, and live in Christ’s abiding presence. Christian baptism and communion are spiritual realities, and, as Christians from many faith traditions, we celebrate these in different ways.
The Future
We believe in the personal return of Jesus Christ, in the resurrection of the dead, in God’s judgment of all persons with perfect justice and mercy, and in eternal reward and punishment. Ultimately, Christ’s kingdom will be victorious over all evil, and the faithful will reign.

Wow. This is an incredible statement of faith. I mean this quite literally: it isn’t credible. Not a shred of verifiable evidence exists for any of these assertions, but faculty members at this college must affirm these articles of faith in writing. Obviously, I can’t make this affirmation. I pointed this problem out to my contact at the college and she suggested a way to get around it. I didn’t want to offend her, but I had to make it clear that I could not affiliate myself with a faith-based religious organization, even if they allowed it. What I didn’t say was that I found the college’s statement of faith frightening. It brought back vivid memories of the faith-based beliefs that I fought hard to abandon when I was young.

This encounter left me wondering how people of faith manage to avoid the pitfalls of this orientation when making sense of data or doing science. The cognitive dissonance must be exhausting. I have no desire to offend anyone who navigates this tension, but I am genuinely concerned that it affects the work. Faith primes us to accept certain things as true, without question, regardless of the evidence. This is never a good approach to data sensemaking or science. The magisteria definitely overlap. The conflict is real. If you’re religious and also a scientist or a data sensemaker, you must navigate these conflicting perspectives with care. I, for one, couldn’t do it.

Linear Versus Logarithmic Thinking about Numbers

December 26th, 2019

Some folks argue that humans intuitively think about numbers logarithmically versus linearly. My experience strongly suggests that this is not the case. If you’ve ever tried to explain logarithms or logarithmic scales to people, or asked them to interpret graphs with logarithmic scales, as I have often done, you probably share my belief that logarithms are not cognitively intuitive. The behaviors that are sometimes described as intuitive logarithmic thinking about numbers can be reasonably explained as something else entirely.

According to some sources, a research study found that six-year-old children, when asked to identify the number the falls halfway between one and nine, often selected three. Unfortunately, after extensive searching I cannot find a study that actually performed this particular experiment. One article that makes this claim cites a study titled “A Framework for Bayesian Optimality of Psychophysical Laws” as the source, but that study does not mention this particular experiment or finding. Instead, it addresses the logarithmic nature of perception, especially auditory perception. Keep in mind that perception and cognition are related but different. Many aspects of perception do indeed appear to be logarithmic. As the authors of the study mentioned above observed about auditory perception, “…under the Weber–Fechner law, a multiplicative increase in stimulus intensity leads to an additive increase in perceived intensity,” but that’s a different matter. I’m talking about cognition. Even if many kids actually did select three as halfway between one and nine in an experiment, I doubt that they were thinking logarithmically. At age six children have not yet learned to think quantitatively beyond a rudimentary understanding of numbers. Until they begin to learn mathematics, children tend to think with a limited set of numbers consisting of one, two, three, and more, which corresponds to the preattentive perception of numerosity that is built into our brains. With this limited understanding, three is the largest number that they identify individually, so it might be natural for them to select three as the value that falls halfway between one and numbers that are larger than three. If the numbers were displayed linearly and in sequence for the children to see when asked to select the number in the middle (illustrated below), however, I suspect that they would correctly select five.

1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9

You might argue that this works simply because it allows children to rely on spatial reasoning to identify the middle number. That is absolutely true. We intentionally take advantage of spatial reasoning when introducing several basic concepts of mathematics to children. This works as a handy conceptual device to kickstart quantitative reasoning. Believing that children naturally think logarithmically would lead us to predict that, if asked to identify the number halfway between 1 and 100, they would be inclined to choose 10. Somehow, I doubt that they would.

Another research-based example that has been used to affirm the intuitive nature of logarithmic thinking about numbers is the fact that people tend to think of the difference between the numbers one and two as greater than the difference between the numbers eight and nine. I suspect that they do this, however, not because they’re thinking logarithmically, but more simply because they’re thinking in terms of relative magnitude (i.e., proportions). Even though the incremental difference between both pairs of numbers is a value of one (i.e., 2 – 1 = 1 and 9 – 8 = 1), the number two represents twice the magnitude of one while the number nine is only 12.5% greater than eight, a significantly lesser proportion. I anticipate that some of you who are mathematically inclined might object: “But logarithmic thinking and proportional thinking are one and the same.” Actually, this is not the case. While logarithms always involve proportions, not all proportions involve logarithms. A logarithmic scale involves a consistent proportional sequence. For example, with a log base 10 scale (i.e., log10), each number along the scale is ten times the previous number. Only when we think of a sequence of numbers in which each number exhibits a consistent proportion relative to previous number are we thinking logarithmically. We do not appear to do that naturally.

Another example, occasionally cited, is that people tend to think of differences between one thousand, one million, one billion, one trillion, etc., as equal when in fact each of these numbers is 1,000 times greater than the previous. Is this because people are thinking logarithmically? I doubt it. I suspect that it is simply because each of these values exhibits the next change in the label (e.g., from the label “thousand” to the label “million”), and changes in the labels suggest equal distances. If people intuitively thought about numbers logarithmically, they should automatically recognize that each of these values (one billion versus one million versus one thousand, etc.) is 1,000 times the previous, but most of us don’t realize this fundamental fact about our decimal system without first doing the math.

Along linear scales, increments from one value to the next are determined by addition—you always add a particular value to the previous value to produce the next value in the sequence, such as by adding a value of one to produce the scale 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. or a value of ten to produce the scale 0, 10, 20, 30, 40, etc. Along logarithmic scales, on the other hand, increments are determined by multiplication—you always multiply the previous value by a particular number to produce the next value in the sequence, such as by multiplying each value by two to produce the scale 1, 2, 4, 8, etc., or by ten to produce the scale 1, 10, 100, 1,000, etc. The concept of logarithms, when clearly explained, is not difficult to understand once you’ve learned the mathematical concept of multiplication, but thinking about numbers logarithmically does not appear to be intuitive. It takes training.

Repeat Due to Pathology

October 31st, 2019

Automated information systems only work if they actually inform and do so clearly. Too often, however, they create confusion. This was not what we had in mind when I and others created some the earliest automated information systems back in the 1980s, when the personal computer began its rapid and thorough takeover of the workplace.

Back then, I was starry-eyed, convinced that everything imaginable should be automated using computers. Unfortunately, I and my colleagues at the time rarely, if ever, questioned the merits of automation. We were having too much fun replacing old manual processes with new automated systems. We were rock stars! We were convinced that those new systems could only do good. My oh my, were we mistaken. Not everything benefits from automation, and even good candidates become counter-productive when they’re poorly designed. Choosing good candidates for automation and then building systems that do the job well takes time and care—two rare ingredients in a “move fast and break things” IT culture.

The most recent reminder of this problem arrived in the form of an email from my health plan yesterday. The email informed me that a new test result was available through the plan’s web-based information system, called MyChart. I assumed that the test result was related to the colonoscopy that I endured the previous week. To put things in perspective, the first time that I had a colonoscopy, the doctor perforated my colon, which landed me in the hospital facing potentially dire consequences. So, as you might imagine, I dread colonoscopies even more than most people.

When I opened the test result in MyChart, it was indeed related to my recent colonoscopy. Here’s what I found:

Other than the date, which matched the date of the procedure, nothing else in this so-called test result made sense to me.

  • What does “Colonoscopy Impression, External” mean? Nothing about the procedure was external.
  • Who is this person identified as “Historical Provider, MD”? My doctor had a name.
  • This was identified as a “Final result,” but I didn’t know that I was awaiting further results. Before leaving the doctor’s office, I thought I was given a full account of the doctor’s findings both verbally and in writing.
  • Most alarmingly, what does a “Your Value” of “repeat based on pathology” mean? Did I have to go through this again? Why? What was wrong?
  • And, to top it all off, I couldn’t tell how the “repeat based on pathology” value compared to the “Standard Range” (i.e., a normal result), because it was blank.

In a panic, I clicked on the “About this Test” icon in the upper-right corner, hoping for an explanation, which produced no results.

The stupidity of this automated system not only produced a panic, it also led me to contact an actual human to resolve the confusion. In other words, a system that was supposed to reduce the work of humans actually added to it, which happens all too often. The human that I contacted, a friendly woman named Beth, didn’t understand what “repeat based on pathology” meant any more than I did, but she was able to access a letter that was placed in the mail to me yesterday, which provided an answer. As it turns out, because a single polyp was found and removed during the procedure, I’m at greater risk than most people of future polyps that could become malignant, so I should have another colonoscopy in five years. What a relief.

Could the test result that was posted to MyChart have provided clear and useful information? Absolutely, but it didn’t, and this wasn’t the first time. I had a similar experience a few months ago while reviewing the results posted in MyChart of a lengthy blood panel. On that occasion, I had to get my doctor on the phone to interpret several obscure lab results.

Information technologies are not a panacea. They aren’t useful for everything, and when they are useful, they must be well designed. Otherwise, they complicate our lives.

The Myth of Technology’s Neutrality

August 5th, 2019

In a recent op-ed that appeared in the New York Times, Tech billionaire Peter Thiel said this about artificial intelligence (AI):

The first users of the machine learning tools being created today will be generals…AI is a military technology.

Thiel’s opinion has created a backlash among some of AI’s proponents who don’t want their baby to be cast in this light. There is no doubt, however, that AI will be used for military purposes. It’s already happening. But that’s not the topic that I want to address in this blog post. Instead, I want to warn against a dangerous belief that is prevalent among many digital technologists. In a response to Thiel’s op-ed, Dawn Song, a computer science professor at the University of California, Berkeley who works in the Berkeley Artificial Intelligence Research Lab told Business Insider,

I don’t think we can say AI is a military technology. AI, machine learning technology is just like any other technologies. Technology itself is neutral.

According to Business Insider, Song went on to say that, just like nuclear or security encryption technologies, AI can be used in either good ways or bad. Basing her claim that technology is neutral on the fact that it can be used in both good and bad ways is a logical error. Anything can be used in both good and bad ways, but that doesn’t make everything neutral. Digital technologies in particular are never neutral. That’s because they are created by people and people are never neutral. Digital technologies consist of programs that are written by people with assumptions, interests, biases, beliefs, perspectives, and agendas that become embedded in those programs.

Not only are digital technologies not neutral, they shouldn’t be. They should be designed to do good and to prevent harm. If the potential for harm exists, technologies should be designed to prevent it. If the potential for harm is great and it cannot be prevented, the technology should not be developed. That’s right. Creating something that does great harm is immoral. This is especially true of AI, for its potential for harm is enormous. If general AI—a truly sentient machine—were ever developed, that machine would not only exhibit the non-neutral objectives that were programmed into it, it would soon develop its own interests and objectives that might be quite different from those of humanity. At that point, we would be faced with a silicon-based competitor that could work at speeds that would leave us in the dust. Our puny interests probably wouldn’t count for much. Could we create a superintelligent AI that would respect our interests? At this point, we don’t know.

Fortunately, some of the folks who are positioned at the forefront of AI research recognize its great potential for harm and are working fervently and thoughtfully to prevent this from happening. They are painfully aware of the fact that this might not be possible. Unfortunately, however, there are probably even more people working in AI who exhibit the same naivete as Dawn Song. Believing that AI is neutral is a convenient way of relinquishing responsibility for the results of their work. Look at the many ways that digital technologies are being used for harm today and ask yourself, was this the result of neutrality? No, those behaviors were either intentionally designed into the products and services or were the result of negligence. There is a great risk that harmful behaviors would develop within AI that were neither anticipated nor intended. The claim that digital technologies in general and AI in particular are neutral should concern us. Technologies are human creations. We must take responsibility for them. The cost of not taking responsibility is too high. Sometimes this means that we must prevent particular technologies from ever being developed. Whether or not this is true of general AI has yet to be determined. While the jury is still out, I’d like the jury to be composed of people who are working hard to understand the costs and to take them seriously, not people who naively believe in technology’s neutrality.