I was a competitive swimmer as a kid. In fact, I held a state record in one of my events. Impressed? Don’t be. ‘Cuz it twarn’t nuthin’. It was as insignificant a state record as anyone could ever hold. Why? Because I won the first event run in the first 25-meter pool in the state (before that, they were 25 yards). That day, the competition was not fierce in my event, and it ended in a tie for first place. My name was entered in the record book. And a week later, it was gone for good.
So, you see? It’s perfectly true that I held that state record. But it’s equally true that upon closer examination, its significance is underwhelming. All too often, crucial government pronouncements need to be examined closely to see if they have any more substance than my state record.
One of the better classes I ever took in college was something called Data Analysis. I use its lessons regularly. In it, amongst other things, we learned that one of the seminal, oft-cited scientific papers proving that salmon navigate by magnetic orientation was fatally flawed. The prof contacted the authors, and got them to send him their raw data. They used two tanks for the studies, located in the field. And, as it turns out, the effect was only seen in one of them – the one closest to their campfire. Those ever-fascinating fish were orienting towards the light! But the paper’s still cited today. Looks like their sense of smell – shown in some other studies involving water diverted for a power plant – is much more what it’s about.
If you were giving a presentation, and that prof showed up with his calculator, it was enough to rattle you, no matter how well you knew your stuff. If only more of our journalists had been required to take a similar class!