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Home » Big Data » So, about this “big data” thing …

On Facebook last Friday our member Carla Berg Nelson posted briefly about a new Psychology Today blog post, Data: the New Window into Humanity, by John Nosta. She tagged a number of other members (and non).  I know and respect Nosta from his days creating a LinkedIn Digital Health group with a zillion members, so I wasn’t surprised to see his perspective. I usually pretty much agree, with a “But not quite” modifier, which I often can’t quite articulate.

Today, outgoing SPM board members Peter Elias and I were among those tagged. Peter, a retired family medicine doc and true advocate of participatory medicine, articulated my own perspective (emphasis added):

Excerpts from Peter’s comments:

[Nosta] makes three valid points: there is huge interest in and concern about data, it has become a form of currency, and if used properly it can result in positive change. Beyond that, he goes off the rails. Where do I start?

Like many who participate in the currently fashionable idolatry of data, the author confuses data with what we do with it, and mistakenly claims that analyzing and connecting data gives us new data. Data refers to facts, not the calculations based on those facts, and certainly not our inevitably biased and speculative predictions, based on our calculations, based on selected facts.

Describing analysis and predictions as data is a classic case of mistaking the map for the territory, or mistaking the model for the reality it tries to represent.

He also says that the data will ‘reveal its bold scientific conclusions.’ Nope. Data doesn’t make or reveal conclusions. And the overwhelming bulk of actual progress comes from small and incremental insights, not bold conclusions.

A ‘disparate set of data points’ when we connect just the right selection of these points (who, exactly, selects and connects?) will become ‘surrogates for focused insights’ ‘that will impact almost every aspect of humanity.’ Really? [What is a “surrogate” for an insight??]

I also challenge the statement that “…the telescope and microscope revealed blasphemous and transformative perspectives.” The blasphemous and transformative perspective of the scientific revolution was ignorance. That is, humanity went from a culture held together by the imagined construct (myth, or lie if you want to be cynical) that there was an irrefutable and universal Truth, that it was eternal and unchanging, that limited parts of it were revealed to us, that it had little to do with our daily lives, and that we were trapped within its confines.

Improvement in the human condition was not on the table. Finding new information was not important as the big questions were answered by the construct of one’s choice (or accident of birth). One sought answers about big questions from the leaders of one’s construct. [There was no feasibility and no point in the ordinary person inquiring into truth; the myth said you have to get that from someone who’s supposedly better than you, be that a priest or a doctor or anyone else.] Little questions (when to plant, what animal hide works best for shoes) were answered by local experience. Research and data didn’t exist.

The scientific revolution (of which the telescope and microscope were pieces) said that we don’t know the answers to the big questions, that all our truths are provisional, and that by pushing on the boundaries set by our ignorance we can improve the human condition and answer questions.

The transformation was that we (humanity) are now in charge of finding our own best-we-can-do-for-now answers, and replacing them with new ones when new information (data) becomes available.

I see data as a raw material for science and the pursuit of knowledge. I don’t see it as the source of wisdom or the savior of humanity.

What do you think?