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Originally published April 28, 2013 at 8:01 PM | Page modified April 29, 2013 at 1:01 PM

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Pitfalls in putting data to work

Data from studies can be helpful in solving problems, if you’re aware of pitfalls.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Good data can make for good decisions and policies as long as our various biases don’t get in the way.

Results of a Gallup Poll last week indicated Washington was the 11th most stressed-out state. That seems like something we might want to address, and right on cue I came across a study that seemed to offer a partial solution.

I read a study in the journal “Psychological Science” that concluded people living in urban areas that have more green space report better feelings of well-being.

Well, we have a lot of nature and a lot of green space around here, so maybe we aren’t taking full advantage of it. Green is nice to look at through the window of a car or building, but the latest research suggests you have to get out in it to get the full benefit.

What else? Ah, we’ve been talking about people driving under the influence of alcohol. Alcohol abuse is a broad problem that can be difficult to address.

I saw a study from Britain that said the alcohol industry there, including major supermarkets, “ignored, misrepresented and undermined” evidence on effective alcohol policies in order to influence public-health policy debates. That’s certainly something to watch for here.

Here’s something on another kind of drink. A person who drinks a 12-ounce sugar-sweetened soft drink every day has a 22 percent increase in the risk of developing type 2 diabetes over someone who steers clear. That’s from a study done by researchers at Imperial College in London.

Some people see how much pop someone drinks as something that affects only the individual, but there are always social costs to behaviors that lead to serious health consequences.

Consider heart disease. Last week the American Heart Association said that by 2030 every U.S. taxpayer could be paying $244 a year to care for heart-failure patients (people whose hearts are so weakened they must be hospitalized) as the number of patients grows and the costs double from $31 billion in 2012 to $70 billion in 2030.

How each of us lives matters to the community. The head of the heart association said we already know how to head off those increases; we just have to decide to act.

We also know that no matter what the evidence, people often have trouble agreeing on what research data mean, especially these days. I was glad to see a new study that looked at how a society becomes polarized and suggested a way to bridge gaps on contentious issues.

Stanford researchers, in a paper published a few days ago in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” said how we go about forming opinions is the problem.

They said the cause of polarization isn’t so much that people self-segregate in like-minded groups listening to the same narrowly focused media.

The deeper cause is that two people given exactly the same information will diverge depending on each one’s existing biases. One of the researchers, Pranav Dandekar, said, “It seems we look at the world with rose-colored blinders. We see what we want and ignore what doesn’t fit.”

But there are solutions. One is to give people a chance to see their positions aren’t as different as they may think. In one project, researchers laid out budgets from Congress and the president side by side, so that it was easy to see how similar they were, despite all the rhetoric to the contrary. Seeing similarities made it easier to talk through the differences.

Last week I wrote about math education and I’m still getting responses, some of them from math teachers who disagree with each other, though they are professionals with access to the same information. They disagree on the value of drilling in basics versus discovering underlying concepts. The thing is, most saw some value in both approaches. The best method seems to be to combine the two, yet opposing arguments cluster toward the extremes.

I hope what works in those Stanford experiments can be translated to the real world. Maybe we’d all be less stressed out.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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