Skills for a Lifetime

Nate Silver’s commencement address at Kenyon College: “….Power has shifted toward people and companies with a lot of proficiency in data science.

I obviously don’t think that’s entirely a bad thing. But it’s by no means entirely a good thing, either. You should still inherently harbor some suspicion of big, powerful institutions and their potentially self-serving and short-sighted motivations. Companies and governments that are capable of using data in powerful ways are also capable of abusing it.

What worries me the most, especially at companies like Facebook and at other Silicon Valley behemoths, is the idea that using data science allows one to remove human judgment from the equation. For instance, in announcing a recent change to Facebook’s News Feed algorithm, Mark Zuckerberg claimed that Facebook was not “comfortable” trying to come up with a way to determine which news organizations were most trustworthy; rather, the “most objective” solution was to have readers vote on trustworthiness instead. Maybe this is a good idea and maybe it isn’t — but what bothered me was in the notion that Facebook could avoid responsibility for its algorithm by outsourcing the judgment to its readers.

I also worry about this attitude when I hear people use terms such as “artificial intelligence” and “machine learning” (instead of simpler terms like “computer program”). Phrases like “machine learning” appeal to people’s notion of a push-button solution — meaning, push a button, and the computer does all your thinking for you, no human judgment required.

But the reality is that working with data requires lots of judgment. First, it requires critical judgment — and experience — when drawing inferences from data. And second, it requires moral judgment in deciding what your goals are and in establishing boundaries for your work.

Let’s talk about that first type of judgment — critical judgment. The more experience you have in working with different data sets, the more you’ll realize that the correct interpretation of the data is rarely obvious, and that the obvious-seeming interpretation isn’t always correct. Sometimes changing a single assumption or a single line of code can radically change your conclusion. In the 2016 U.S. presidential election, for instance, there were a series of models that all used almost exactly the same inputs — but they ranged in giving Trump as high as roughly a one-in-three chance of winning the presidency (that was FiveThirtyEight’s model) to as low as one chance in 100, based on fairly subtle aspects of how each algorithm was designed….(More)”.