The Data Delusion

Jill Lepore at The New Yorker: “…The move from a culture of numbers to a culture of data began during the Second World War, when statistics became more mathematical, largely for the sake of becoming more predictive, which was necessary for wartime applications involving everything from calculating missile trajectories to cracking codes. “This was not data in search of latent truths about humanity or nature,” Wiggins and Jones write. “This was not data from small experiments, recorded in small notebooks. This was data motivated by a pressing need—to supply answers in short order that could spur action and save lives.” That work continued during the Cold War, as an instrument of the national-security state. Mathematical modelling, increased data-storage capacity, and computer simulation all contributed to the pattern detection and prediction in classified intelligence work, military research, social science, and, increasingly, commerce.

Despite the benefit that these tools provided, especially to researchers in the physical and natural sciences—in the study of stars, say, or molecules—scholars in other fields lamented the distorting effect on their disciplines. In 1954, Claude Lévi-Strauss argued that social scientists need “to break away from the hopelessness of the ‘great numbers’—the raft to which the social sciences, lost in an ocean of figures, have been helplessly clinging.” By then, national funding agencies had shifted their priorities. The Ford Foundation announced that although it was interested in the human mind, it was no longer keen on non-predictive research in fields like philosophy and political theory, deriding such disciplines as “polemical, speculative, and pre-scientific.” The best research would be, like physics, based on “experiment, the accumulation of data, the framing of general theories, attempts to verify the theories, and prediction.” Economics and political science became predictive sciences; other ways of knowing in those fields atrophied.

The digitization of human knowledge proceeded apace, with libraries turning books first into microfiche and microfilm and then—through optical character recognition, whose origins date to the nineteen-thirties—into bits and bytes. The field of artificial intelligence, founded in the nineteen-fifties, at first attempted to sift through evidence in order to identify the rules by which humans reason. This approach hit a wall, in a moment known as “the knowledge acquisition bottleneck.” The breakthrough came with advances in processing power and the idea of using the vast stores of data that had for decades been compounding in the worlds of both government and industry to teach machines to teach themselves by detecting patterns: machines, learning…(More)”.