Friday, June 24, 2005

Don't trust research information in tables

One of the things that I've come to mistrust when I look things up is material presented in tabular format. My concern isn't that the format is necessarily wrong, because I myself often use tables, but they lend themselves to short-cuts which make them unreliable.

The primary problem is that they often heavily summarize the information to the point where the table can be, depending on your underlying interpretations, downright wrong. In addition, particularly in the world of sales and use tax, there are so many exceptions, exceptions to the exceptions, exceptions to the exceptions' exceptions, etc. that the tables just don't show enough detail to be useable.

For example, there's one table that I often have to deal with that summarizes absorption laws essentially by saying whether it's allowed are not. That's it - OK or NOT OK. Anyone who has reviewed those things knows that the rules are often just a tad more complicated.

On the other hand, I've seen tables with lots of text in each cell. The author really only uses the tables to present the information in a little more readable format. That, to me, carries a little more authority.

So in summary, beware of simple answers presented in a table. But if the author puts complicated answers in a table, that's better. At least if you're trying to get the right answer.

Here's a later article on the same subject

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