So how can academics help the public distinguish fact from fiction? For political science and legal studies Professor Elena Llaudet, it’s a numbers game.
‘Numbers are not the enemy’
“I’m just not a math person.”
Llaudet hears that a lot, usually at the start of her undergraduate Data Analysis and Politics course each semester. It’s her mission to convince students that numbers are not the enemy — but a powerful ally in the war against misinformation.
“Everyone can become comfortable with numbers if they take the time to practice and are shown how numbers can help us make sense of the world and inform our decisions,” says Llaudet.
She brings real-world examples into the classroom to help students make connections between data and current events. Each class begins with a question to explore: How does Russian media affect Ukrainian politics, who voted for Brexit, or who is the most likely candidate to win the upcoming election. Then Llaudet teaches students how to analyze real data to answer these questions and how to identify potential weaknesses in the analysis.
This semester, the class analyzed data from the initial clinical trials of COVID-19 vaccines, looking to estimate their effectiveness and identify gaps in the data such as a lack of information on how pregnant people and those under 16 might react to them. “It is in the process of answering substantive questions, by analyzing real data, that students in my class learn statistics,” says Llaudet.
This experiential approach to teachings statistics gives students context and motivation for the concepts they’ll learn first, helping even the most math-averse find purpose in the work.
Students leave Llaudet’s class better equipped to parse complex events and conflicting information — and more marketable to employers.
Diving into data science
In the real world statisticians use data analysis software to crunch numbers — so that’s what Llaudet teaches her students. In her class, already more than 330 Suffolk students have learned how to code in R—a free, powerful, and popular statistical program. Most people view knowing how to code in R as an incredibly marketable skill, but one that can be hard to learn, says Llaudet. She has found that students pick it up quickly while using it to solve problems, another benefit to the applied method she uses.
Politics, philosophy, and economics alumnus Ben Holden, BS ’20, approached Llaudet’s course with apprehension. He never had any affinity for mathematics growing up and had few expectations for the class beyond fulfilling his quantitative curriculum requirement. By the end of the semester he was shocked to find that he not only thrived in the course — he actually found it fun.
“If you put in the effort, you’ll quickly discover this is something that makes total sense,” says Holden. “It helped me better understand the world around me and sharpen my ability to separate legitimate scientific fact from spin and fiction.”
This fall Holden will start his master’s program in data science at American University. Learning how to use data “opens a whole world of possibilities,” he says.
“The class takes a political science angle, but the things you can do with R, for example, go vastly beyond that. No matter what industry you end up going into it’s something that really puts you ahead in terms of a skill set. This is a door-opener in so many ways.”
How data drives policy
Data literacy became a life-and-death matter during the pandemic. “It became clear how critical it is for leaders to be able to understand and evaluate scientific studies so that they can make sensible policies based on them,” says Llaudet.
Outside of crisis situations, data is a crucial tool that helps lawmakers advocate more effectively for legislation.
In his role as digital communications manager for U.S. Representative Adriano Espaillat (D-NY), Adriano Pucci, BS’21, uses the data analysis skills he gained in Llaudet’s course to explain the effects of policy changes to constituents and the press.
“While I don’t work directly in data analysis, every day I tell compelling stories about legislative accomplishments that more often than not have numbers tied to them. Being able to look at an outside analysis in detail and differentiate between correlation and causation has definitely made me a better communicator all around,” says Pucci.
Llaudet’s goal is to demystify data analysis far beyond higher education. She and Harvard Professor Kosuke Imai are working on a book that aims to make data analysis for the social sciences accessible to all. Ultimately, Llaudet wants the general public to gain greater expertise in making sense of data on their own, creating informed and engaged citizens and reducing the spread of false information.
“Being able to truly understand data empowers people to make up their own minds,” says Llaudet, “from deciding whether to take a vaccine to choosing whom to vote for.”