Historians still needed! (Where Big Data goes wrong)

tags: Science, history, Big Data



Gary Marcus is a professor of psychology at New York University and an editor of the forthcoming book “The Future of the Brain.” Ernest Davis is a professor of computer science at New York University.

BIG data is suddenly everywhere. Everyone seems to be collecting it, analyzing it, making money from it and celebrating (or fearing) its powers. Whether we’re talking about analyzing zillions of Google search queries to predict flu outbreaks, or zillions of phone records to detect signs of terrorist activity, or zillions of airline stats to find the best time to buy plane tickets, big data is on the case. By combining the power of modern computing with the plentiful data of the digital era, it promises to solve virtually any problem — crime, public health, the evolution of grammar, the perils of dating — just by crunching the numbers.

Or so its champions allege. “In the next two decades,” the journalist Patrick Tucker writes in the latest big data manifesto, “The Naked Future,” “we will be able to predict huge areas of the future with far greater accuracy than ever before in human history, including events long thought to be beyond the realm of human inference.” Statistical correlations have never sounded so good.

Is big data really all it’s cracked up to be? There is no doubt that big data is a valuable tool that has already had a critical impact in certain areas. For instance, almost every successful artificial intelligence computer program in the last 20 years, from Google’s search engine to the I.B.M. “Jeopardy!” champion Watson, has involved the substantial crunching of large bodies of data. But precisely because of its newfound popularity and growing use, we need to be levelheaded about what big data can — and can’t — do....

[B]ig data is prone to giving scientific-sounding solutions to hopelessly imprecise questions. In the past few months, for instance, there have been two separate attempts to rank people in terms of their “historical importance” or “cultural contributions,” based on data drawn from Wikipedia. One is the book “Who’s Bigger? Where Historical Figures Really Rank,” by the computer scientist Steven Skiena and the engineer Charles Ward. The other is an M.I.T. Media Lab project called Pantheon.

Both efforts get many things right — Jesus, Lincoln and Shakespeare were surely important people — but both also make some egregious errors. “Who’s Bigger?” claims that Francis Scott Key was the 19th most important poet in history; Pantheon has claimed that Nostradamus was the 20th most important writer in history, well ahead of Jane Austen (78th) and George Eliot (380th). Worse, both projects suggest a misleading degree of scientific precision with evaluations that are inherently vague, or even meaningless. Big data can reduce anything to a single number, but you shouldn’t be fooled by the appearance of exactitude.



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