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He Said, She Said: What Happens When We Discover Conflicting Data?

Written by Marsha Rakestraw | 2 Comments | Published on May 29, 2014 | Filed under Humane Connection
The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Humane Education website at http://humaneeducation.org/blog/2014/05/29/said-said-discover-conflicting-data/

chalk graph with world map behind

Image courtesy kikashi.

One of the key elements of humane education is providing accurate information to others. By researching various issues and resources, humane educators often learn just how challenging finding accurate, credible information can be.

A recent news story serves as a potent example.

The Veterinary Information Network News Service (VIN) reported on the significant discrepancies between the two entities that “separately track the population of pets in U.S. households and are cited equally as authoritative sources.” VIN said, “Dog and cat counts by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the American Pet Products Association (APPA) never have matched exactly in 17 years of their asking similar questions in pet ownership surveys of American households.”

And some believe that the figures from both organizations are inaccurate and unreliable, due to the methods and populations used for collecting data.

So what do organizations that rely on this data do? Some use one source; some the other. Some focus on the trends, rather than the specific numbers; and some seek out their own data.

There are several take-aways from this example for humane educators and changemakers, including:

  • Finding accurate, credible information sometimes takes significant effort.
  • It’s essential that the information we use is as accurate as possible and that we cite multiple, credible sources, so that people can follow-up on what we’ve shared with them.
  • We need to consider the context of the information: how it was gathered, how it has been displayed, any potential biases, etc.
  • When the data is inconsistent, as in this example, we can use the best information available and be transparent about the discrepancies .
  • If we can’t find accurate, credible information, we can look to trends, anecdotal evidence and other sources.
  • We should always refrain from using information we know to be inaccurate or misleading.
  • It’s important to regularly reevaluate the statistics and facts we use, as data can change.

 

When I give humane education presentations to the public, I emphasize that I’ve tried to ensure that the information I’m sharing is as accurate as possible, but that if they discover something I’ve told them is incorrect, to please let me know. (I also encourage them not to believe a word I say and to go find accurate, credible information on their own so that they can learn the truth for themselves.) I include a list of source citations for my information. I consult multiple sources, including government and industry sources. I regularly update my information when I discover new, more reliable data. And I’m always honest and transparent about the information, especially if there’s any uncertainty about its validity.

Taking these measures helps those with whom we’re engaging feel more comfortable and accepting and boosts our credibility. If they know we’re striving to be as transparent, honest and sincere as we can, we become a trustworthy resource for them and perhaps help them become more open to positive change.

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About Marsha Rakestraw

Marsha is IHE's Director of Online Courses and Education Resources and part of the online course faculty. More

Contact Marsha View all articles by Marsha Rakestraw

2 Comments

Mary Haak says:

Thanks so much for this article. I’ve long been frustrated by the statistics used in animal welfare circles. It’s bad enough that we don’t need to exaggerate, and if the exaggeration is large enough, it’s just not believed by many. I’ve been trying to track down the source of these often cited “national” statistics which are posted on many animal rescue sites:

“Only 1 out of 10 dogs born ever get a home. Only 1 out of 12 cats born ever find a home. Over 800 dogs & cats are KILLED each HOUR in the U.S, because there are not enough homes for them.”

The math simply doesn’t work. Even using the “conservative” numbers of pet ownership, that would indicate 630 million homeless dogs and 814 million homeless cats in the US. The 800 “killed” dogs and cats number was no doubt true at some point in the past, but the current “accepted” rate of 2.7 million a year would work out to about 308 euthanized in shelters. Does it matter? If you expect to be credible, absolutely.

Mary, thanks for your comment.

Accurate, credible information is truly important in our work as humane educators (it’s the first of the 4 core elements of humane education). Exploring the accuracy of information is something that our students engage with in all our courses, and we strongly encourage humane educators to bring that habit of a critical eye to their own students and audiences.

Once we’ve lost our credibility, it’s often lost forever.

Thanks for your work for a better world for all!

Marsha