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Data isn’t objective. This new podcast dispels the myth

Data journalist Mona Chalabi’s new podcast, ‘Am I Normal,’ explores what happens when numbers don’t tell the full story.

Data isn’t objective. This new podcast dispels the myth
Mona Chalabi [Photo: Kevin Hagen/Getty Images/Gates Archive]

Is it normal that you only have one really good friend? Is it normal that you still can’t get over your ex two years after you broke up?

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Mona Chalabi’s new podcast, Am I Normal? is here to challenge your definition of normal. The data journalist, whose popular Instagram illustrations have portrayed complex subjects like abortion laws, climate change, and the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, has taken to audio to make sense of a chaotic world, all with the help of data. Except data is often riddled with pockets of missing information and numbers don’t always tell the full story. Am I Normal?, which was developed with the TED Audio Collective, is here to peer into those gaps and teach you how to tell when numbers are legit, and when they’re lying to you. And because it wouldn’t be a Mona Chalabi podcast without some fun visuals, each episode is accompanied by short videos released on the TED website, featuring Chalabi’s illustrations, props, animations, and even a puppet of her mom.

Chalabi is a data editor at The Guardian U.S. On her personal Instagram account, she uses illustrations to make huge sets of statistics accessible to the average person, like me, who is allergic to numbers. But to her, numbers mean something else. “To me numbers are a language, and I’m obsessed with languages,” she says.

So what makes a data journalist who uses visuals to communicate information want to do a podcast? “The thing that’s exciting about a podcast is I’ve long been catering to a medium that works so much better for people who aren’t visually impaired. Audio is catering to a different audience,” she says. “Whether it’s sound, TV and film, or illustrations, each medium has its own quirks.”

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In her new podcast, Chalabi turns to numbers for answers to questions we’ve all asked ourselves. How many friends do I really need? (One study points to 150.) How long will it take me to get over my ex? (A common refrain says the pain lasts half as long as the relationship did.) None of these numbers tells the full story, of course. In 1993, the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar found that we can only maintain a maximum number of 150 friends (that number is called Dunbar number). Does this mean that you have to have 150 friends? Or that you’re abnormal if you have more than 150 friends?

“Sometimes, so many of these conversations about friendship are vague and nebulous,” says Chalabi. “There’s something so valuable in a conversation about just stating that number, it gives [people] a point to orient themselves.” For the record, no, you are not abnormal if you don’t have 150 friends, and no, you are not abnormal if you’re still hung up on your ex four years after you broke up. “Normal is a starting point, not an endpoint,” Chalabi says.

So, numbers, however incomplete, can give us a frame of reference. But take one look at Chalabi’s Instagram, and you will notice that she doesn’t just use numbers to make sense of a messy life. She uses data to take a stand and make a difference. When George Floyd was murdered in May 2020, she drew a striking chart illustrating the number of times police killings between 2013 and 2019 resulted in a conviction (out of 7,666 police officers, a devastating 7,567 walked free). And during Pride Month this year, she spotlighted the companies that celebrate Pride while also donating to homophobic politicians (Walmart, Home Depot, AT&T, and Amazon topped the chart.)

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Most often than not, her visuals are accompanied by a call to action, whether it’s direct or indirect. In many ways, Am I Normal has underlying prompts, too. “Research shows that one of best ways to get over a breakup isn’t to tell yourself that love is temporary or to ruminate on the bad things,” says Chalabi. “The call to action is just to take care of yourself, do things that make you happy.”

The podcast’s fourth episode will focus on fertility, and how the blame is disproportionately placed on female bodies in ways that are harmful and destructive. “A lot of it is bad science,” says Chalabi, demanding much more focus on the way that sperm can contribute to infertility. “The call to action here is: Scientists, do better.”

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Ultimately, Chalabi’s goal is to find the right numbers to tell the right story. And when the numbers are missing, the absence tells a story, too. “The things that we take the time to bother to explain with data are an indication of where power lies,” she says, pointing out that there is an array of data on the number of women and men in the United States, but a lack of complete data on nonbinary or trans people. “Numbers are only going to tell you part of the story,” she says, “but the part of the story they tell is such an important component of the discussion.”

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