Freakonomics author: 4 ways data could be tricking you

By Meris Stansbury
June 23rd, 2016


Stephen J. Dubner, Freakonomics co-author, explains why using data to predict future trends is trickier than you may think.

When higher ed leaders discuss big data these days, as well as its potential to help predict future trends and, therefore, courses of action, stories about turkey breasts, hand washing and monkey sex don’t also make the rounds; but according to the Freakonomics author, they should.

“What people say they feel or say they do versus what they actually do are often two completely different things,” explained Stephen J. Dubner, journalist, author and this year’s Infocomm 2016 Las Vegas keynoter. “And this is what makes the use of data tricky whenever industry looks to it for answers in behavior.”


For colleges and universities looking to big data to extrapolate courses of action regarding everything from admissions to learning outcomes, never has the time to invest in its study (data science) or in very skilled data analysts been more critical. Within three very specific anecdotal stories, Dubner reminds everyone that there are four reasons why looking to data for all the answers will be one of the hardest tasks education has ever tackled.

So before higher ed admin and leadership invest time and money in data analysis, be sure the data your institution has collected is first and foremost, accurate.


1. There Will Be Unforeseen Correlations

Trailing what seemed to be a somewhat banal statement that “economists can’t predict everything,” Dubner gave the glaring example of the 2012 recession, saying that “zero percent of economists predicted the Great Recession, otherwise known as their job.”

“The reason for this,” he continued, “is because as we advance in this age and increasingly rely on data to help predict the future, it often can’t. And one of the reasons it often can’t is because there are too many unforeseen variables.”

Dubner gave the example of artificial insemination…for turkeys.

Probably unbeknownst to many, turkeys raised for slaughter no longer procreate. Why? Because they are physically unable.

“As the health movement swept across the country and more people turned to white meat consumption, farmers began raising turkeys that had especially large breasts to produce the demanded white meat. As a consequence, these large-breasted turkeys have chests so large they are unable to procreate, and farmers had to invest in using labs to artificially inseminate female turkeys.”

(Next page: People often lie)

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