data analysisMore often than not, surveys and research experiments are conducted in order to verify or validate conclusion that have already been reached. Thus is the nature of science, with the need for empirical testing and statistical support for theories and ideas constantly driving forth the quest for knowledge. However, every now and again, a study comes along that turns the initial hypothesis completely on its head, or reveals trends that no-one could have anticipated. Here are three examples of where data analysis has helped to uncover startling conclusions.


The Higgs boson

On July 4th 2012, scientists working at Switzerland’s CERN Laboratory made a discovery that physicists have been working towards for some 45 years; they identified a particle consistent with the much-vaunted Higgs boson. The Higgs boson allows scientists to explain how all matter in the universe attains its mass, so the discovery of the particle allows us to better understand the fundamental mechanics of our universe. The discovery of the Higgs boson was the culmination of years of intellectual and physical toil, and the product of the analysis of thousands of individual data points. In order to validate a scientific discovery in the field of particle physics, said discovery must pass a five standard-deviation, or ‘five sigma’ level of certainty. In order to achieve this level of statistical validation, huge amounts of scientific data must be captured, processed, analysed and combined at the utmost level of accuracy.


Obedience to authority

In 1963, American social psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment that was to become legendary. Milgram subjected 40 participants to a series of tests intended to determine their inherent obedience to authority figures. Milgram had two actors, one a figure in a white coat used to connote knowledge and authority, the other asked to portray a willing test subject, dupe his participants into believing that they were to punish the test subject with electric shocks of increasing intensity on the receipt of incorrectly answered questions. While Milgram’s study was intended to reveal an innate obedience to authority, what was surprising was just how strong this obedience was found to be. Of his 40 participants, Milgram found that 37 continued, when prompted, to administer the ‘shocks’ throughout their full range, up to and including a potentially lethal 450 volts.


Increased availability of narcotics

Some American researchers have reason to believe that the steady decrease in national violent crime figures bears a direct correlation to an increased availability of illegal drugs. In the 1980s, addictive drugs such as cocaine were incredibly valuable thanks to the inherent difficulty in obtaining them. As police cracked down on dealers and importers, effectively reducing the supply in the face of a consistently large demand, the street prices of such drugs were driven up even further, meaning that people were prepared to do anything to get their hands on substances that were both a valuable commodity and an addictive compulsion. As US drug culture has become increasingly rife, what with the ready availability and relative cheapness of substances including meth amphetamines, supply has increased and demand has gone down, meaning that addicts are less likely to resort to desperate means to acquire their fix. Violent crime has fallen sharply in the US since the late 1980s, and there’s reason to believe this isn’t entirely due to improved policing methods…