Welcome to SAGE Knowledge

Data Literacy

Explore the skills necessary to find, critically evaluate, and use data effectively.
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By: Julia Bauder, Editor-in-Chief

Data is a powerful tool for making sense of the world. Depending on the classes that you are taking, you may be learning how to use data to understand the economy, the planet’s climate, the human body and mind, or many other things. Because researchers have been able to quantify and mathematically model many natural and social phenomena, humanity has been able to ameliorate problems that plagued people for generations—including the literal plague, which is now treated with antibiotics that have gone through a data-intensive testing process to ensure that they are safe and effective.

This skill will help prepare you to use data to do well in your classes and to do good in life. You’ll learn how to recognize different kinds of data, which is covered in this Skill, as well as how to create data efficiently and ethically, topics covered in this Skill. In this Skill, you’ll learn where to search for data that has already been created by others, as well as some searching techniques that you may find helpful, so that you can find the data you need to answer your own questions.

Like all powerful tools, data can be used to harm as well as to help. Researchers who are trying to collect data have sometimes misused their subjects. Sometimes this has been direct, intentional harm, as when researchers studying syphilis intentionally withheld medical treatments from Black American men with syphilis so that they could study the disease progression. You’ll learn more about this study, the Tuskegee Experiment, as well as other ways that racism and other forms of explicit and implicit bias affect data collection and use, in this Skill.

Understanding and working with data involves two skills that many students find intimidating—mathematics and statistics—and this Module provides brief introductions to those topics, too. This Skill provides a brief overview of the essential mathematical skills for working with data, such as calculating percentages and creating cross-tabulations. In this Skill, you’ll get a light-hearted perspective on foundational statistical ideas such as statistical significance, probability, and correlation.

Data can be used both to inform and to mislead. This is particularly true for data visualizations. When you’re looking at a well-designed visualization by a well-intentioned creator, you can easily grasp patterns in the data and conclusions that can be drawn from the data. On the other hand, a visualization designed by an ill-intentioned creator can be equally effective in getting casual viewers to draw erroneous conclusions. This Skill will help you to distinguish between appropriate and misleading data visualizations and to interpret data visualizations accurately.

The final Skill will help you put all of your data knowledge together to write data-driven papers for your classes, from selecting and evaluating data all the way through writing about and citing that data. When you’ve finished this module, you will better understand how to harness the power of data to succeed in your classes and to understand your world, and you will be better equipped to think about how to use the power of data wisely.

Suggested Reading
  • Bergstrom, C. T., & West, J. D. (2021). Calling bullshit: The art of scepticism in a data-driven world. Random House.
  • Healy, K. (2019). Data visualization: A practical introduction. Princeton University Press.
  • Herzon, D. (2016). Data literacy: A user’s guide. SAGE Publications.
  • Rosling, H., Rosling, O., & Ronnlund, A. R. (2018). Factfulness: Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world — and why things are better than you think. Flatiron Books.
  • Vogt, W. P., & Johnson, R. B. (2016). The SAGE dictionary of statistics & methodology: A nontechnical guide for the social sciences SAGE Publishing.
Page citation: Bauder, J. (2022). Data literacy. SAGE Skills: Student Success. https://sk.sagepub.com/skills/student-success/data-literacy