Why Big Data Matters and Data-ism Doesn’t

Derrick Harris

There has been something of a data backlash happening lately, and I think I’ve figured out why: Data for the sake of data has a tendency to sanitize experiences we’d rather leave a little bit dirty. But there’s a big, meaningful difference that’s worth knowing between big data and just plain data.

David Brooks’s recent column in the New York Times is a good example of this. He coined the term “data-ism” (which is quite apt) to describe a newfound penchant for reducing everything in our worlds into a number or statistic. Skeptical of this data worship, he is — rightfully — inclined to rebel.

But everything Brooks mentions in his article is really just statistics, the stuff academicians and businesspeople have been doing for years. It doesn’t take any revolutionary technological advances to measure the effect of political spending on campaign results or the idiosyncrasies in how a president speaks. At the best, these types of analyses are enlightening; at the worst, they’re overkill...

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