Five myths about big data

Samuel Arbesman, senior scholar at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and the author of “The Half-Life of Facts” in the Washington Post: “Big data holds the promise of harnessing huge amounts of information to help us better understand the world. But when talking about big data, there’s a tendency to fall into hyperbole. It is what compels contrarians to write such tweets as “Big Data, n.: the belief that any sufficiently large pile of s— contains a pony.” Let’s deflate the hype.
1. “Big data” has a clear definition.
The term “big data” has been in circulation since at least the 1990s, when it is believed to have originated in Silicon Valley. IBM offers a seemingly simple definition: Big data is characterized by the four V’s of volume, variety, velocity and veracity. But the term is thrown around so often, in so many contexts — science, marketing, politics, sports — that its meaning has become vague and ambiguous….
2. Big data is new.
By many accounts, big data exploded onto the scene quite recently. “If wonks were fashionistas, big data would be this season’s hot new color,” a Reuters report quipped last year. In a May 2011 report, the McKinsey Global Institute declared big data “the next frontier for innovation, competition, and productivity.”
It’s true that today we can mine massive amounts of data — textual, social, scientific and otherwise — using complex algorithms and computer power. But big data has been around for a long time. It’s just that exhaustive datasets were more exhausting to compile and study in the days when “computer” meant a person who performed calculations….
3. Big data is revolutionary.
In their new book, “Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think,”Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier compare “the current data deluge” to the transformation brought about by the Gutenberg printing press.
If you want more precise advertising directed toward you, then yes, big data is revolutionary. Generally, though, it’s likely to have a modest and gradual impact on our lives….
4. Bigger data is better.
In science, some admittedly mind-blowing big-data analyses are being done. In business, companies are being told to “embrace big data before your competitors do.” But big data is not automatically better.
Really big datasets can be a mess. Unless researchers and analysts can reduce the number of variables and make the data more manageable, they get quantity without a whole lot of quality. Give me some quality medium data over bad big data any day…
5. Big data means the end of scientific theories.
Chris Anderson argued in a 2008 Wired essay that big data renders the scientific method obsolete: Throw enough data at an advanced machine-learning technique, and all the correlations and relationships will simply jump out. We’ll understand everything.
But you can’t just go fishing for correlations and hope they will explain the world. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up with spurious correlations. Even more important, to contend with the “why” of things, we still need ideas, hypotheses and theories. If you don’t have good questions, your results can be silly and meaningless.
Having more data won’t substitute for thinking hard, recognizing anomalies and exploring deep truths.”