Big Data Caution…from GK Chesterton

“The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait.”
…GK Chesterton, “Orthodoxy”

It was with great interest I ran across this comment the other day. And it got me thinking about the world of big data today.

The red flag for data abuse comes when people cede their human initiative and let data take over. Listen to how people discuss “big data” and you’ll start getting a sense their vision is to have data run the world. I suppose in a corporate bureaucracy this provides perfect cover for a mistake. (“The data said to do it” or perhaps “The Data Scientists said it would work!”).

Yet we need to remember Chesterton’s insight: “…wildness lies in wait.”  It’ll look entirely reasonable…until it’s not.

We forget that this willingness to cede initiative to data and science isn’t new – Big Data is only the most recent appearance.

  • Jan Swafford’s biography of Beethoven reminds us of the Enlightenment belief in the late 1700’s that science would reveal the keys to government and society.
  • Jump forward, there was a similar period in the early 1900’s (Chesterton’s time).
  • Then, it arose again in the 1920’s & 1930’s with a huge jump in the publication of books about “scientific management” based on quantifying the details of each employee’s work.
  • In the 1950’s it was well documented in the book “The Organization Man”.
  • And in the 1970’s the Rand Corporation, desperate for profits, tried to apply statistical management about anywhere they could. This led to a deadly set of data determined choices in the 1970’s NYC fire department – now made famous in Joe Hood’s fascinating book “The Fires”.

Don’t get me wrong:  Data offers tremendous power. But pondering Chesterton leads me to suggest we balance three truths:

  1. There are a wide range of situations where we can learn profitably by gathering data then doing smart analysis.
  2. But wildness lies in wait and there are amazing gaps in what we learn through these methods.
  3. Even worse, the cleverness of what we learn often hides the mistakes in what we learn.

Let’s accept the truth:  you can’t turn it over to a database. But neither should you reject what data has to offer.

Sadly, in the world of advertising agencies seem to fall into one camp or another – where data and research are everything or where all data and research are rejected in favor of pure reliance on gut.

The most marketing power is found with neither of these. Advertising success, and success in nearly any business or government endeavor, happens when individuals and teams use data to inform their human instincts and reasoning in order to make better decisions. But make no mistake:  The responsibility for deciding is human and shouldn’t be turned over to a database.

Copyright 2015 – Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved


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