A friend of mine is convinced that I started to tell him a story back in 1995 that I have yet to finish. Another friend teases me because she thinks I start all of my stories with a date and location, like a cross between Walter Winchell and a film noir voiceover: “June 1993. Somerville, Massachusetts. I was supposed to be working on my doctorate, but the only thing I was working on was a caffeine jag. And then she knocked on the door…
“Wait. Did I ever tell you about the day I drove all the way to Concord, New Hampshire to copy town-level data from the 1976 presidential primaries? It was May 1992…”
The title of this blog is “Just Bear With Me…” When I tell a story, to me every detail and out-of-nowhere sidebar is part of an informational gestalt, but to a listener it can sound like a load of extraneous detail punctuated by annoying pauses to recall more extraneous details.
The point is that, like most of us, I like to tell stories, and I have my own way to tell them. I particularly like telling stories resulting from the collection and analysis of data points. And I do get to the point…eventually.
Wait, you say, data journalism is all the rage now. Like, EVERYBODY is doing it. What do you have to tell me that I can’t read on, say, fivethirtyeight.com?
That is a fair question. I think that website and Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise should be required reading. Period. To me, they are the gold standard for telling important and interesting stories with data.
But everyone has a different way to tell a story because everyone has their own stories to tell. I have my own data-driven stories to tell you, if you would like to listen.
I will start by telling two stories. To the best of my knowledge, every “data point” in these stories is true.
Story A: A heterosexual white male grows up in the wealthy Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia. His father is a successful business owner who provides a comfortable life for his mother, older sister and him. After winning multiple academic accolades at a renowned high school, he enrolls at Yale University, where he makes many important connections. One of those connections, a well-respected professor of political science, helps him get accepted into a doctoral program at Harvard University, funded through a series of prestigious fellowships. Eventually, he earns Master’s Degrees in political science and biostatistics and a PhD in epidemiology, capping a successful career as a well-respected data analyst and manager. He is also an active member of a wide range of distinguished academic and cultural organizations. As an adult, he marries an accomplished woman descended from an old and distinguished New England family, related to many illustrious artists, and raised in Georgetown, where she attended exclusive private schools with the sons and daughters of the political elite. They settle into an exclusive apartment in an upscale section of Brookline, where they are currently raising their two talented daughters.
Wow, talk about a well-placed member of the coastal cultural elite!
Story B: An adulterous liaison results in a pregnancy. Mere days after giving birth, the unwed mother gives up her son for adoption to the children of immigrant fathers. The boy’s father is a spoiled man-child with a lifelong gambling addiction, the boy’s mother barely finished high school, and the boy’s older sister spends her childhood in and out of institutions across three states. When the boy is 10, his father’s gambling losses are so bad that sheriff’s deputies haul the boy’s father off to jail one night for missing mortgage payments. The boy’s mother has soon had enough, and she and her son move into a low-rent apartment. To support herself and her son, the boy’s mother takes a low-wage telephone soliciting job. A few years later, the boy’s parents divorce; the father dies soon after, aged 46. By the time the boy is 17, he has been in and out of therapy for suicide attempts. He soon begins to drink, asking friends of age to buy beer for him; upon turning 21, he turns to harder liquor like Scotch. For years, the man self-medicates with alcohol, wasting hours at a local bar, sabotaging a potential career in the process. He bounces from one job to the next, with long stretches of unemployment. Eventually, he goes back into therapy, where he is being treated for depression.
This poor slob is straight out of a David Goodis story: one of life’s losers whose ladder of opportunity is buried deep underground.
As an astute reader, you have concluded that these are the same story (and that Story B is 39 words longer…our first numeric data point together)! Basically, I just introduced myself to you in two completely different ways in the same blog post. Such is the power of selective storytelling, where a story—but not the complete story—depends on which facts are chosen.
If you bear with me, I will do my best to tell you complete, primarily-data-driven stories on subjects from film noir to the 2016 elections, from baseball to public health, from Charlie Chan to Doctor Who. The thing is, I am already doing these analyses, and this will spur me to disseminate what I learn.
I will also endeavor:
- to be transparent in my data sources and analytic methods,
- to post only when I actually have something (hopefully) interesting to say, and
- to limit each post to 1,000 words.
Informational gestalt is one thing, bored readers another.
Please feel free to comment in a thoughtful and respectful way. I do not tolerate meanness in myself or my children, so I would like the same from you.
Oh…that woman who knocked on my Somerville door in June 1993? We dated for 7½ years. And I have no idea where are all those 1976 primary data are now.
Until next time…
UPDATE: July 22, 2017. Yeah, about that 1,000 word limit. That did not last very long, did it? I do try to limit my posts to no more than 3,000 words, however, roughly the length of peer-reviewed journal article. Thank you for bearing with me for those extra 2,000 words.