Anti Data David Brooks

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Another day another column from a NYT columnist spouting half truths and half baked ideas.  David Brooks’ fight against objective reality is not a new phenomenon.  I remember the pre-election freak out about Nate Silver.  Shorter Brooks, if reality does not agree with your preconceived notions reject reality.

Yesterday’s column was about the supposed shortcomings of data analysis.

Data can help compensate for our overconfidence in our own intuitions and can help reduce the extent to which our desires distort our perceptions.

But there are many things big data does poorly.

He does not explain ever what he means by big data.  Does David Brooks want to do away with the scientific method?

Your brain is pretty bad at math (quick, what’s the square root of 437), but it’s excellent at social cognition. People are really good at mirroring each other’s emotional states, at detecting uncooperative behavior and at assigning value to things through emotion.

Just because Bobo is bad at math does not mean everyone is. As Doug Galt of Balloon Juice points out this is not a  very difficult problem in the first place. And even if I needed a calculator to determine the square root of an extremely large number, what exactly does that prove? It does not prove that human brain is not good at math. The answer to the above  problem would be the same if either the innumerate David Brooks were to punch in the keys or a  mathematician. Besides, finding the square root of a number is arithmetic and there is much more to math than arithmetic.

Therefore, when making decisions about social relationships, it’s foolish to swap the amazing machine in your skull for the crude machine on your desk.

Who has proposed this, exactly? A straw man created by Brooks. Using your computer does not preclude using your brains. As with the example of the calculator the the computer is just faster in some instances.  Also, scientists have collected and analyzed and relied on data  before the advent of computers.

Data struggles with context. Human decisions are not discrete events. They are embedded in sequences and contexts. The human brain has evolved to account for this reality. People are really good at telling stories that weave together multiple causes and multiple contexts. Data analysis is pretty bad at narrative and emergent thinking, and it cannot match the explanatory suppleness of even a mediocre novel.

A jargon laden paragraph of gibberish, bet someone could come up with a program that wrote columns that are not so mediocre.

Data creates bigger haystacks. This is a point Nassim Taleb, the author of “Antifragile,” has made. As we acquire more data, we have the ability to find many, many more statistically significant correlations. Most of these correlations are spurious and deceive us when we’re trying to understand a situation. Falsity grows exponentially the more data we collect. The haystack gets bigger, but the needle we are looking for is still buried deep inside.

Apparently Bobo, has never taken a statistics course, because the first thing they drill into you at even in  Statistics 101, is that correlation is not causation. It is clear that David Brooks has never collected data for any scientific experiment or done any kind of analysis using numbers, because the problems he cites are about analyzing the data.  Does he not realize that results based on scientific analysis have to be robust and not be dependent on either the data set or who is doing the analysis. Scientific research through its peer review process already has these safe guards in place.

This is not to argue that big data isn’t a great tool. It’s just that, like any tool, it’s good at some things and not at others.

No Bobo, data analysis and the scientific method is much better than your gut feeling or reading a sheep’s entrails or tea leaves. And despite your dig at Nate Silver, he did  get the election results right.  And he has a much better record than you at making political predictions. He proved in the last election cycle that your gut based approach did  not hold a candle to his methodology.

I get it, David Brooks is suspicious of something that he does not understand.  May be David Brooks should get at least a freshman level understanding of the subject he is criticizing, before churning out a column about it.

Posted on February 21, 2013, in Politics, Punditubbies say Hello. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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