When nearly half of US internet users are getting their political news from Facebook, it rightfully raises many worries. Chief among them is that Facebook’s powerful algorithm creates a “filter bubble” in which users mainly see posts they agree with, reinforcing the heavily polarized nature of American political discourse.
In research recently published in Science, researchers from Facebook and the University of Michigan suggest that the news feed algorithm is less influential than some people have made it out to be. Instead, they claim it is mostly users themselves who, through their decisions about what to click on or who to be friends with, are responsible for the creation of any ideological bubbles.
Don’t be so quick to let Facebook off the hook, though. Despite being published in a reputable science journal, the researchers’ conclusion appears to be questionable.
More than 800,000 people around the world kill themselves each year, and millions more try but fail. This puts suicides among the top preventable causes of death in the world. And from Albania to Zimbabwe, in every country, men commit suicides in greater numbers than women do.
In the UK, more than 330,000 cases of cancer were diagnosed in 2011. That compares favorably with the rate of cancer in the US—396 per 100,000 people in the UK vs. 451 per 100,000 in the US.
But even though people in England, where the UK’s largest population is, are less likely to get cancer, five years after diagnosis, only 56% of English cancer patients survive, compared to 65% of American patients.
Quantification in an argument is seen as a big plus. If someone quotes some statistics, their argument suddenly seems so much more convincing. Yet, statistics is a funny thing. It can be hyped and sensationalised. The same data can be analysed differently to reach conclusions that support your argument. Most people do it mistakenly but there are many cunning minds out there who do it deliberately. People need to protect themselves from this misrepresentation of numbers.
Surprisingly, it is not hard to do. The latest Sense about Science initiative on making sense of statistics gives you quick run through on how can we question these numbers and abstract the true meaning out of them. It is a good example of how being mildly skeptical is generally a good thing.
Some interesting examples that I will quote from the guide are:
Literary Digest carried out a survey before the 1936 US Presidential Election. It mailed out millions of ballot papers and got two million back; a huge sample, most of which backed the Republican candidate Alf Landon.But the addresses to which they had been sent came from a directory of car owners and from the telephone directory: a biased sample, since in 1936 only the better-off owned cars or had telephones. Franklin D Roosevelt, the Democrat, won the election in a landslide.
When it was claimed that in the ten most deprived areas in the UK 54% of teenage girls were likely to fall pregnant before the age of 18, it didn’t take long for people to realise this could not be true – it would mean over half of teenage girls from these areas being pregnant. The real figure was 5.4%.
If you had a room with ten teachers all earning between £20,000 – £30,000, with a If you had a room with ten teachers all earning between £20,000 – £30,000, with a mean salary of £24,900 and a median (mid-point) salary of £25,000 and then someone who earns a million pounds walked into the room, the mean would increase to £114,000 but the median would hardly change. By using the median or mode (most common value) this distortion can be reduced, providing a more representative average salary.
I hope people make use of this guide to help themselves and the society better understand numbers which form a such a significant part of our lives today.