The Limits of Data

Essay by C.Thi Nguyen: “…Right now, the language of policymaking is data. (I’m talking about “data” here as a concept, not as particular measurements.) Government agencies, corporations, and other policymakers all want to make decisions based on clear data about positive outcomes.  They want to succeed on the metrics—to succeed in clear, objective, and publicly comprehensible terms. But metrics and data are incomplete by their basic nature. Every data collection method is constrained and every dataset is filtered.

Some very important things don’t make their way into the data. It’s easier to justify health care decisions in terms of measurable outcomes: increased average longevity or increased numbers of lives saved in emergency room visits, for example. But there are so many important factors that are far harder to measure: happiness, community, tradition, beauty, comfort, and all the oddities that go into “quality of life.”

Consider, for example, a policy proposal that doctors should urge patients to sharply lower their saturated fat intake. This should lead to better health outcomes, at least for those that are easier to measure: heart attack numbers and average longevity. But the focus on easy-to-measure outcomes often diminishes the salience of other downstream consequences: the loss of culinary traditions, disconnection from a culinary heritage, and a reduction in daily culinary joy. It’s easy to dismiss such things as “intangibles.” But actually, what’s more tangible than a good cheese, or a cheerful fondue party with friends?…(More)”.