The cry of ‘fake news’ is all too regular today. But just how well are students able to interrogate the numbers spouted as fact? A unique undergraduate subject is ensuring graduates not only have a statistical curiosity for the world around them, but can confidently interrogate arguments too.
The assertion of being either a ‘numbers person’ or a ‘words person’ no longer flies in today’s ‘datafied’ society.
“Many students learn how to ‘do’ maths, but all students need additional practice at ‘using’ maths, statistics and probability in the context of real events and decision making,” says Senior Lecturer in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences Dr Mary Coupland.
“We often resort to our intuitions when risk and probability are involved. Knowing the maths, and practising communicating with and about facts and figures, helps us make better decisions and helps us to unpack ‘fake news’.”
That’s why Mary worked with staff from the Institute for Interactive Media and Learning to create Arguments, Evidence and Intuition (AEI) – a subject aimed at making our students more data literate. Its point of difference, though, is bringing statistical literacy together with critical thinking.
“Our senior executives want all UTS graduates to be numerate, and this means different things in different faculties. However, as society depends more and more on data, it’s essential that all our graduates need confidence in dealing with numbers,” Mary explains.
AEI is designed to build the skills necessary to follow and critique the numerical and statistical arguments presented in the media and online. Students learn to make their own arguments based on facts and figures, choosing a contentious issue and analysing cases put forward by people on both sides. Popular issues in recent sessions include gun control, Sydney’s lockout laws, drug testing at music events and driverless cars.
“People are omitting data that's actually relevant to the problems they're talking about”
Dr Simon Knight is a Lecturer in the Faculty of Transdisciplinary Innovation and was the AEI subject coordinator for Autumn session. He says while AEI is partly about building numeracy or statistical literacy, it's also about building statistical curiosity.
“We need students to be critical consumers of information around them,” says Simon. “Students are increasingly exposed to a myriad of different perspectives, and there are two horns to this dilemma. We want students to pay attention to multiple perspectives and try to have empathy for different stakeholder groups; that's a really big part of this subject.
“But we also need them to be critical of those views and of the evidence they use and try to come to some sort of understanding of what the truth is,” adds Simon. “Getting them to deal with the uncertainty and ambiguity inherent in that is something AEI focuses on.”
The importance of finding accurate data sources when forming an argument has stayed with final-year communication student Daniel Isidro. He studied AEI over the last Summer session and says, “It's easy to find stats but there is a lot of conflicting evidence out there. The hard part is trying to find the most relevant and most unbiased form of evidence in a sea of numbers.
“AEI is the real application of actually arguing and using statistical evidence in your everyday work. Coming from a comms background, a lot of the things we look at, including articles and news, deal with data.
“This subject really does teach you how to be able to use that data, utilise it as your argument and substantiate the evidence that you present depending on the story you want to tell.”
Though AEI is administered by the Faculty of Science, it’s available as an elective to students across all faculties and has typically attracted students from engineering and communication. Simon says while many students are familiar with the idea of using statistics, challenges arise when they begin thinking about why the numbers are important and how to reconcile competing views around them. For Simon, whose background is in psychology and philosophy, thinking through these cognitive biases is important.
“People are omitting data that's actually relevant to the problems they're talking about,” he says. “For example, politicians making claims about the economic impacts of things. They're making appeals to intuition or to popular belief rather than actually using the evidence. This subject tries to get the students to engage with real-world examples. We use a lot of newspaper articles and real data sets to explore those issues.
“One of the big ones we've looked at this session is international coal consumption – obviously a very important topic in the climate change context. In Australia, it's particularly salient at the moment with Adani and mining in Australia.
“What many people may not realise is there's an assumption that, say, China and parts of America are the biggest consumers of coal in the world, which in absolute terms is true. But actually, Australia per capita is by far the biggest consumer. So, we look at that data set to explore the normalisation and what that means for climate change policy.”
The subject has benefited from interdisciplinary perspectives in its development, including welcoming guest lecturers from different faculties who bring their own passions and expertise.
Senior Lecturer in journalism Jenna Price has been one of these guest lecturers. “I went into journalism because I love writing. But one of the things I discovered is that making numerical errors can cause real problems for your audience and for yourself.
“This subject teaches students how to tell stories, which we need in any job we have. Whether it's an engineering job or a public relations job, we are now storytellers. Our most compelling stories are ones where we can see numbers change and see the impact those numbers have on our lives."
Want to know more? Read ‘4 ways to build data curiosity’ now.