Why marketers must wake up to Popeye and spinach

Bill_Portlock1Many of you may fondly recall the legendary sailor Popeye, whose rippling muscles seemed to swell with strength whenever he consumed a can of spinach. His iconic catchphrase: “I yam what I yam, and that’s all what I am,” echoed through generations, reinforcing the idea that spinach was a powerhouse of nutrition, particularly iron. However, as enduring as Popeye’s image may be, his nutritional wisdom was not entirely accurate.

Spinach has long been heralded as a nutritional powerhouse, celebrated for its supposed abundance of iron. This reputation was built on a misinterpretation that persisted for decades due to a simple typographical error. A misplaced decimal point led many to believe that spinach contained ten times more iron than it actually does. Thus, the myth of spinach’s exceptional iron content was born, perpetuated by generations of fans, including the spinach-loving sailor himself.

Yet, when it comes to the world of data analysis, it’s not just fictional characters like Popeye who can fall prey to misconceptions. In the realm of data, anomalies and inaccuracies can easily lead even seasoned analysts astray. As a seasoned leader in data analysis, I often remind my team to approach their findings with a critical eye. Whenever something seems too remarkable or improbable, it’s essential to delve deeper into the data and examine the underlying methodology.

In my experience, remarkable findings often stem from flawed data selection or interpretation, rather than genuine insights. When my team presents startling results, I encourage them to scrutinise their approach and question the integrity of the data. Sometimes, the root cause of discrepancies lies not in the phenomenon being studied but in the data itself – akin to the misplaced decimal point in the spinach myth.

Recently, an insightful article in the Financial Times shed light on a perplexing phenomenon: the prevalence of semi-supercentenarians (i.e. those aged 105 and over) in impoverished regions with lower life expectancies. Rather than attributing this discrepancy to conventional factors such as diet or genetics, the article unearthed a surprising explanation. Through meticulous investigation, it was revealed that discrepancies in reported ages were often linked to systemic issues such as pension fraud, unreported deaths, or inaccurate birth records.

This revelation underscores the importance of meticulous data analysis, particularly when confronted with seemingly inexplicable trends. Rather than accepting surface-level explanations, analysts must dig deeper, examining not only the data itself but also the broader context in which it is situated. By doing so, we can uncover hidden truths and challenge long-standing myths, much like debunking the spinach iron myth.

In conclusion, whether unravelling the mysteries of spinach nutrition or deciphering complex data trends, a critical mindset is essential. By questioning assumptions, scrutinising methodologies, and delving into the intricacies of the data, we can separate fact from fiction and uncover genuine insights that stand the test of time. In essence, always check the data.

Bill Portlock is founder and CEO of Metrix Data Science

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