The message from the lecture this week was that as dry as data can seem, we should always approach it as if it is serving an agenda. Data can be added to, subtracted from and cast through a prism, whether social, political or economical. As cynical as this outlook can seem, I think it is smart to approach data with scepticism until its biases can be understood.
An example stands out to me from BA English: the commonly called “Peasant’s Revolt” of 1381 was nothing of the sort. It was orchestrated by small landowners of the countryside to destroy tax records stored within London, helping their subjects who had unfair taxes raised against them in by church and state. The group that came to London to rectify this burned the records of church and state (and maybe the buildings they were contained in) so the records were destroyed and the institutions could not tell who had paid and who had not. The taxes could not be demanded again without further protests and uprisings. Londoners saw the opportunity of disorder to destroy the city indiscriminately, and so the authorities cast the uprisings as the work of poor people from outside London who came to cause trouble, thus vilifying them for centuries to come. Six hundred and thirty years later, when I was learning about the revolts of 1381, people of North London rose up to make a stand about the killing of Mark Duggan by police. UK-wide, the cause was co-opted to cause mayhem and looting.
It is from the biases in data, the gaps, that we can draw our conclusions and use them for storytelling.
The lecture made reference to the Domesday Book, the first record of a country-wide census to ascertain where resources lay and taxes could be levied. Now, the modern census is used to collect data from citizens so that the governments, local and state, can understand its populations. While theoretically a great idea, sometimes the data is not treated as neutrally as it should. For the US Census, there is concern about how the information is going to be used from minority groups, given Trump’s bigoted policies. Advocacy groups don’t want people to become invisible as it could skew the help they receive.
The Washington Post fact-checked Trump’s State of Union address – as he has been known to massage or outright fabricate superlative facts during his presidency. The position of POTUS conveys a certain level of authority and therefore people believe him: because he is in that position, why should they not?
Who’s truth and how is that truth judged?