Let’s Forget Big Data

by Plotinus

It is somewhat ironic that the complex objective of better problem-solving through the amassing and analysis of increasingly detailed information has had to be condensed into a two-word catch phrase: ‘Big Data’. Perhaps this is more a reflection on the human inability to cope with information beyond the attention span of a proverbial goldfish, but the metaphor serves well to illustrate the problem with Big Data.

There are a number of issues that should be sounding buzzers and waving red flags, most of which have nothing to do with data per say (regardless of how big or small), but human behavior. To be clear, there is not a question that more information is available, particularly in digitalized form, there is no argument that storage and processing power has increased exponentially or that our ability to delve into this data can certainly produce insightful connections and correlations.

Data Alchemy

Data Science is only a science in the Weberian Value Free sense so long as it remains in an abstract laboratory—an empirical ideal (if you’ll pardon the contradiction). The minute, second, nanosecond you go to do something with the results of your data science, it becomes social and as such becomes value-laden. Suddenly data science isn’t looking so ‘sciency’ anymore. Maybe data science/alchemy might be a more appropriate term. Add a tincture of “marketing’ to the mix and value free has become VALUE full and it can be measured in dollars and cents.

But let’s return to the matter of the attraction of Big Data, the hope that by gaining access to endless information it will by extension lead us to endless answers.

It might be a good idea to stand back and reflect on our human propensity to repeat the same old record taken from a different sleeve. Think of previous holders of a similar mantle, psychology, for instance. Then just take a look at the work of Brian Nosek on the Reproducibility Project in examining whether important scientific studies in the field of psychology were repeatable. This does not write off psychology as worthless, but rather shows the need to question, probe and be healthily skeptical.

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