The Difference Between Facts and Data

There is a common confusion – an intentional one, I believe – regarding facts and data.  People tend to treat these interchangeably, and I suspect that there are folks who have a good reason for encouraging this kind of confusion.

Data is information.  It doesn’t tell you anything other than a static piece of information.  Data can be interesting, but isn’t of much use until it is processed in some way.  Data has to be sifted and filtered and aggregated in deliberate ways in order to provide information.  This processed information is sometimes referred to as fact

There are those that would have you believe that while data is open to interpretation, fact is fact, and therefore is not open to interpretation or redefinition – despite the fact (pun intended) that the only reason that one arrived at a fact in the first place is through the interpretation of data. 

So, a piece of data would be that plastic bags and other polyethylene products degrade very, very, very slowly.  The fact that is taken from this piece of information, is that because it is estimated that this material will take a thousand years or so to degrade in a typical landfill, that we need to completely redesign things to avoid using this material, or find ways to recycle it.  This fact (we need to quit creating or vigorously recycle all polyethylene because otherwise it will sit in our landfills for a millennia or so) is an interpretation, an application of a particular piece of data (the estimated time it takes polyethylene to biodegrade). 

Note:  I’m a firm believer in both recycling and the reduction in the tonnage of dangerous and quasi-dangerous materials we produce in the world.  I believe that natural is generally better – if not always as convenient.  If we weren’t so obsessed with production and consumption, demand wouldn’t be as high for all of the short-cuts that technology can offer us in very complex and hard to degrade materials.

That being said, it would appear that the facts about polyethylene products are not necessarily true.  A high-school student has taken it upon himself to figure out what causes polyethylene to degrade – be it ever so slowly – and see if he can’t speed up the process a bit and shave a few years off the biodegradation cycle. 

He has succeeded.  He managed to shave off roughly 999.75 years, to be more exact. 

Here is someone who took a piece of data, and rather than interpret it the way that everyone else apparently felt it had to be interpreted, he went a different direction.  A frighteningly common sense direction, actually. 

So, continue to recycle those plastic grocery bags.  Better yet, buy some canvas reusable ones and quit taking plastic bags all together.  This is still a good step.  But if you leave those reusable bags at home, perhaps you don’t need to lose sleep about the pile of plastic bags under your kitchen sink.  It might be possible to reduce them to water and a bit of carbon dioxide in about three months.

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