Garbology: Leaps in Data Interpretation

Trying to construct the life of my assigned subject in the Garbology project has been an opportunity to see how easy it is to make leaps with data interpretations and cultural knowledge. My subject’s coffee consumption appeared to mirror my own – does that indicate they also require coffee to function on a daily basis? Or, also like myself, perhaps they cannot justify the expense or time required to stop at Starbucks every weekday? I can easily voice the assumption that the absence of any evidence of meat may indicate vegetarianism. It’s also just as possible that availability, expense, or eating meals out of the home could have influenced the contents of my subject’s garbage. A more solid statement regarding the absence of meat products would be supported by the presence of other alternative proteins, which would then perhaps strongly indicate a vegetarian diet.

Though Garbology is a study of the recent past, it provides a good lesson to those who study archaeology of any era: the absence of one sort of item in an extremely limited data set does not always indicate a particular pattern. The presence of coffee may very well indicate a sleepless student, and the absence of meat may point to a vegetarian. But to make the leap and say emphatically “This is the way of life of the subject” is jumping to conclusions without enough supporting evidence. A researcher should critically analyze the data available, question it from multiple angles, and acknowledge when one interpretation is not the only possibility.

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