The Bias Behind Big Data

We live in the house of big data. We assume it is fabricated of objective truths that are as neutral as off-white paint swatches. Big mistake.

Here is an article that pulls back the curtain on why we find the promise of big data so alluring. Read the entire piece if you can spare the time because it provides genuine insights about why modern culture rushes to embrace ostensibly fact-driven / value-free truths that are actually laden with their own gospel-like ideologies and agendas.

According to the author, the seductive power of big data is actually a reflection of "positivism" - a pervasive ideology that promises us understanding without limits. Buyer be aware.


Modernity has long been obsessed with, perhaps even defined by, its epistemic insecurity, its grasping toward big truths that ultimately disappoint as our world grows only less knowable. New knowledge and new ways of understanding simultaneously produce new forms of nonknowledge, new uncertainties and mysteries. The scientific method, based in deduction and falsifiability, is better at proliferating questions than it is at answering them. For instance, Einstein’s theories about the curvature of space and motion at the quantum level provide new knowledge and generates new unknowns that previously could not be pondered.

Since every theory destabilizes as much as it solidifies in our view of the world, the collective frenzy to generate knowledge creates at the same time a mounting sense of futility, a tension looking for catharsis — a moment in which we could feel, if only for an instant, that we know something for sure. In contemporary culture, Big Data promises this relief...

...Positivism’s intensity has waxed and waned over time, but it never entirely dies out, because its rewards are too seductive.The fantasy of a simple truth that can transcend the divisions that otherwise fragment a society riven by power and competing agendas is too powerful, and too profitable. To be able to assert convincingly that you have modeled the social world accurately is to know how to sell anything from a political position, a product, to one’s own authority. Big Data sells itself as a knowledge that equals power. But in fact, it relies on pre-existing power to equate data with knowledge...

...Data science need not be an elitist practice. We should pursue a popular approach to large data sets that better understands and comes to terms with Big Data’s own smallness, emphasizing how much of the intricacies of fluid social life cannot be held still in a database. We shouldn’t let the positivist veneer on data science cause us to overlook its valuable research potential.

But for Big Data to really enhance what we know about the social world, researchers need to fight against the very cultural ideology that, in the short term, overfunds and overvalues it.

Read the entire piece here.