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Data can prove anything ... no matter how absurd

This is my latest column in the Blue Chip magazine at the Eugene Register Guard...

It’s hard sometimes not to be a skeptic. The Internet today is riddled with endless surveys and data along with headlining results. Who can we trust? What do we believe?

One of these days I’m going to start a new consulting company based on the sad truth that in today’s world a good search turns up nice-looking data to prove just about anything

A while back I read the following on a post on Forbes.com:

“A UK study found that over 50 percent of social media users evaluated their participation in social networking as having an overall negative effect on their lives. Specifically, they singled out the blow to their self-esteem that comes from comparing themselves to peers on Facebook and Twitter as the biggest downfall.”

In defense of the author of that post, she’s obviously making fun, going on to say that there’s bad behavior in social media that will make your blood pressure rise.

She was joking, but the study wasn’t. And seriously: When something starts with “A study found that …” do you pay attention?

I used to, back before the Internet, when information was hard to find. These days I don’t have the same respect for “a study found” because there are studies to find anything you want to say. No matter how preposterous.

Take the post I found on the blog Mashable.com by David Mielach of BusinessNewsDaily called “Can Facebook Make You Fat and Poor?”

The post says researchers found that social media users were more likely to binge eat and have a higher body-mass index. Frequent Facebook users also were more likely to have certain financial problems, including a lower credit score and higher levels of debt.

But wait. It says the research was based on the responses of 541 Facebook users in the United States. So what does it really mean?

First, who makes up the sample? Is it Facebook users or Facebook users who answer surveys? Those are different sets of people. Is it balanced for age, demographics, technology, geography?

Maybe the people who answer surveys on Facebook have less self control — that’s why they took their time to answer the survey. And maybe people who answer surveys have less money because they waste their time answering surveys. Maybe they are just younger, on average, and that causes the money difference. And maybe they lie to surveys.

So maybe what it really shows isn’t about Facebook users but rather about people who answer surveys.

Then there is that whole issue of causation and correlation: Could we just as easily say living in a large house makes you rich, or attending college makes you young? That’s as logical as saying Facebook users have less self control and less money. Right?

Here’s a direct quote from the research: 

“These results are concerning given the increased time people spend using social networks, as well as the worldwide proliferation of access to social networks anywhere, anytime via smartphones and other gadgets. Given that self-control is important for maintaining social order and personal well-being, this subtle effect could have widespread impact.”

So now it’s “widespread impact.” Wow.

I’m not saying that information is bad. Misinformation is. I’m not saying that research is bad. Believing it is. Letting “research” end the discussion and trump common sense is bad.

Question the research, question the assumptions, look through it, and then take what’s valuable in it. Never just believe it.

2 Perilous myths of education and entrepreneurs

So you — or your kid — are bored in school, not doing well? School is hard? Grades not very good? Nowadays you have an instant escape route. Forget college. Why study? Why work at school? Why pay for an education when you can go straight to entrepreneurship? Schools can’t teach entrepreneurship anyhow. Steve Jobs dropped out. Bill Gates dropped out. Mark Zucker­berg dropped out. 

“Why should I bother to go to college if I want to do my own business?” 

I hate that question, but I get it a lot. It’s wrong for so many reasons that it’s hard to list them all. But here are the two biggest, and most dangerous, myths about education and entrepreneurship. 

Myth 1: The value of education is earning power. 

The biggest fallacy in this area is the idea that anybody can measure the value of education in dollars. Education elevates life with ideas, with understanding how to learn and what’s important, with a sense of how to analyze and digest information, and by providing practice in learning and communicating. Education changes a person for the better. 

If the liberal arts major earns no more than the skilled crafts person, does that make the degree in literature, psychology or history worthless? I don’t think so. I leave that one up to you. 

Myth 2: Entrepreneurs are born, not taught 

Hogwash. People are all different, entrepreneurs are all different, and any one person’s ability to jump into entrepreneurship and take risks is different from all others. Success is always a mix of talent, work, practice, luck, experience, and knowledge. There are some things that can be taught in school, and some that can’t. The great artists are mostly a mix of talent and hard work. Some of the great entrepreneurs didn’t finish college, but the vast majority of successful entrepreneurs did. 

I know, from personal experience, that some elements of entrepreneurship can be taught in a classroom. For example, cash flow, financial analysis, principles of marketing and techniques for product development are skill sets you can acquire outside of a classroom; but learning in a class accelerates the process. 

I also know that some success factors are hard to teach in class. Making decisions, leadership, understanding what somebody else is feeling, for example. There are some techniques that can be taught, and sometimes those techniques help. But you can learn these things in the world, in the school of hard knocks. 

Yeah, sure, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg are successful college dropouts. But none of them ever made that his secret sauce; the college dropout thing just happened. Bill Gates regrets dropping out of college. Steve Jobs hung around Reed College for the education, even after he dropped out. And Zuckerberg? OK he had a tiger by the tail, who can blame him? But does he go around bragging about it? 

In actual life you can’t always walk downhill. Sometimes you have to go uphill. If you don’t, you miss a lot. 

Baby turtles will walk only downhill after they break out of their shells, and they either find water or die. Humans need to walk uphill sometimes. Life takes work. You have to be able to bear down during the crunch times. And knowing how to read, write, add and subtract is the actual daily stuff of the entrepreneur as much as it is anybody else. 

Take a look at the Kaufman Foundation’s Education and Tech Entrepreneurship report, and you’ll see that in the cream of the entrepreneurship crop, successful founders are likely to be well-educated. 

Conclusion: You decide. 

For every self-made genius drop-out like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs there are a few million people stymied as adults because they didn’t stick with their education, didn’t do the uphill portions of it, when they were kids. 

Education is something some people have to forgo because of hard circumstances — struggling families, poverty, true disability — and that is a damned shame. Let’s solve that problem. And let’s not confuse their misfortune with the general rule that entrepreneurs armed with education are more likely to succeed than those who aren’t. And that educated humans are better off in their whole lives for having had the luxury of learning to read, write, calculate, evaluate, analyze and enjoy.

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