I somehow stumbled into a long think piece about the inadequacies of “Big Data,” which includes everything from FiveThirtyEight to, somehow, dating sites. Echoing Jay Rosen’s work on the futility of a purely “objective” view, it’s called “View from Nowhere.”
The gist of it is that the positivists, here defined as people who think we can figure everything out through data (my philosophy professors probably defined it differently, but this definition actually makes sense to me), are conceited in their belief that they can step away and let data discern truth. We all have biases, writer Nathan Jurgenson says, even if they only show up in the way we ask questions. It’s like the old saying on computers’ fallibility being directly attributable to bad programming: “Garbage in, garbage out.”
Jurgenson’s critique is reasonable, but I also found myself thinking about a recent post from the most grounded journalist or ex-journalist I know, Lex Alexander, who fretted about the media’s outright refusal to call bullshit on anything or anyone.
The terms get slippery here. To some extent, Lex and Jurgenson are both criticizing the “View from Nowhere” that has indeed led to some journalistic malpractice over the years. My McCarthy studies taught me how easy it is to manipulate journalists who are trying to get “both sides” of an argument. Reporters and editors must have the inclination, the guts, and the knowledge base to say, “Yeah, hang on, I’m going to check that out.”
But my issue with Jurgenson’s piece is that I hope people, while recognizing the limits of “Big Data,” can also see it an important tool for calling bullshit.
A lot of controversies in modern media aren’t opinions. They’re facts. We have people in elected office who go against science on climate change and evolution. They go against history on … well, American history. They go against economics whenever convenient.
Outside politics, we have a populace that believes in a lot of junk. Anti-vaccination movements. The latest chain email from Grandma about that African-born Obama trying to usher in an Islamofascist state. And so on.
Big Data isn’t perfect. No source is. And frankly, the data journalists like Nate Silver are really good at explaining the limitations of their own work. Silver doesn’t just pass along numbers from Rasmussen without challenging the methodology.
But in a land of people so desperate to believe whatever someone tells them to assuage or reinforce their fears, we desperately need Big Data. Because Big Bullshit is a monster.