We’re now well over half a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, and the lack of a vaccine is excruciating. With dozens of candidate vaccines generating countless headlines about positive results in early stage trials, it’s tempting to see any further delay as unnecessary. If we know that these vaccines work, can’t we follow China’s lead by picking one and starting mass distribution?

If only things were so simple. The sad truth is that large-scale trials are more than a needless formality. …

A common mistake that has become more common recently is treating graphs as indisputable facts. The truth is far messier: any data visualization is the product of numerous subjective decisions. An informed reader should be able to identify these decisions and understand their impact. Charts should be approached with the same skepticism applied to other carefully crafted arguments, regardless of medium.

Consider this graph from the Financial Times, which argues that the US has had the worst coronavirus outbreak of any country in the world:

There are at least nine key decisions that went into making this graph:

1. Is…

The coronavirus pandemic is the first data-driven crisis. The key numbers — infections and deaths — are easily understood, widely available, and constantly changing. As a result, the outbreak has led to more charts, graphs, comparisons, and projections than any event in history. While data should be at the heart of any public health response, the current crisis has led to widespread uncritical analysis of clearly flawed data.

Take this chart from the Financial Times which shows confirmed case counts day-by-day since each country hit 100 cases. The data is carefully sourced, beautifully displayed, and thoughtfully annotated. As a result…

Over the course of a single weekend last January, two of the world’s leading AI companies found themselves caught up in embarrassing errors. Facebook’s automatic translation inadvertently translated “President Xi” to “Mr. Shithole” (in Burmese), while Apple drew criticism after Siri responded to queries about the Israel with references to “the Zionist occupation state.”

I don’t envy the relevant PR teams, and obviously Facebook and Apple made mistakes. But the real lesson here isn’t about Silicon Valley bias or antisemitism or cultural sensitivity. It’s about AI. Specifically, don’t use AI unless you can tolerate stunningly embarrassing errors.

As long as…

Max Rosett

Data scientist and data skeptic. Director of Data Science at Research Bridge Partners. Aspiring mountain man.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store