The Big Myth of Data

The Massive Fantasy of Information


Good decision-makers are pushed by the info, consultants inform us. They forged their preconceptions apart. Certainly, because the venerable Sherlock Holmes famously uttered in Scandal in Bohemia, “It is a capital mistake to theorize earlier than one has the info.” Then, with clear eyes, essentially the most rational of decision-makers observe the proof wherever it might lead.

It positive seems like good recommendation and, in an period the place we’re inundated with knowledge at each flip, seemingly extra related than ever. However is it?

Frankly, upon nearer inspection, it is not even clear, actually, what the steerage even means. Right here I’m, sitting in entrance of a big spreadsheet, questioning: how may this lifeless matrix stuffed with inert values ever take me anyplace? I can not obtain it immediately into my mind like I do apps onto my iPhone. Nor can I scroll by way of it, absorbing its contents like some hacky pace studying infomercial from the 90s.

No, as a substitute I need to determine. I need to select which cells to take a look at, which queries to write down, and what charts and graphs to generate. None of these choices are pushed by the info; they’re pushed by me. Extra particularly, they’re pushed by my theories and guesses about what is going on on the planet behind the info. Guesses that originate in my very own thoughts. Certainly, people are solely ever capable of make sense of information in gentle of their current guesses. Because the thinker Karl Popper identified, all observations are “theory-laden.”

One other solution to reveal the incoherence of the follow-the-data edict is to comprehend that the exact same knowledge are recurrently used to justify utterly totally different conclusions. A Republican and Democrat have a look at the identical gun security or abortion or COVID coverage and stroll away with polar reverse assessments. However, crucially, it is not simply political partisanship that accounts for these various perceptions. Even two sober, well-meaning scientists have a look at the identical experimental outcomes and generally come away with wildly totally different interpretations of the intervention being investigated.

The reality is that this: being data-driven is inconceivable. We won’t assist however view the world by way of the lens of our pre-existing theories. Which leaves knowledge with a extra humble, subordinate function. Its job is to rein in our theories, to assist us fact-check them, to identify the errors they comprise. Because the neuroscientist Anil Seth places it in his guide Being You, “Notion occurs by way of a technique of continuous prediction error minimization.”

Due to this fact, when somebody proudly publicizes they’re “data-driven,” what they usually are, essentially, is “theory-blind.” They fail to understand that it is not the info within the driver’s seat however somewhat their very own theories.

Which is a harmful place to be. As a result of if their theories occur to be unsuitable, they usually usually can be, they don’t have any energy to criticize them. No energy to vary them.

And that is a disgrace. As a result of it is the power to be versatile, to conjecture various theories, after which view the info in gentle of every certainly one of them that’s actually the trail to sound decision-making.


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