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Archive for July 14th, 2015

Once it was clear that the NSA could do something, it seemed inarguable that the agency should do it — even after the bounds of information overload (billions of records added to bulging databases every day) or basic decency (spying on allied heads of state, for example) had long since been surpassed.  The value of every marginal gigabyte of high tech signals intelligence was, at least in theory, quantifiable.  The downside—the inability to prioritize essential intelligence and act on it; the damage to America’s democratic legitimacy — was not.  As a result, during the past couple of decades spycraft went from being a pursuit driven by human judgment calls to one driven by technical capability.
The reason the quants win is that they’re almost always right — at least at first.  They find numerical patterns or invent ingenious algorithms that increase profits or solve problems in ways that no amount of subjective experience can match.  But what happens after the quants win is not always the data-driven paradise that they and their boosters expected.  The more a field is run by a system, the more that system creates incentives for everyone (employees, customers, competitors) to change their behavior in perverse ways — providing more of whatever the system is designed to measure and produce, whether that actually creates any value or not.  It’s a problem that can’t be solved until the quants learn a little bit from the old-fashioned ways of thinking they’ve displaced.
Sociologist Donald T. Campbell noted this dynamic back in the ’70s, when he articulated what’s come to be known as Campbell’s law: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making,” he wrote, “the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.
That’s what a good synthesis of big data and human intuition tends to look like.  As long as the humans are in control, and understand what it is they’re controlling, we’re fine.  It’s when they become slaves to the numbers that trouble breaks out.  So let’s celebrate the value of disruption by data  —  but let’s not forget that data isn’t everything.
  —  Felix Salmon
From his article: “Why Quants Don’t Know Everything
Which appeared in the January 2014 issue of “Wired Magazine
[Emphasis in the quote is mine.  —  KMAB]
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On This Day In:
2014 Dignified Values
2013 Unappreciated Skill
2012 Living Courage
2011 What’s Happening To Us?
2010 Toothbrush, Carbon and Monoxide
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

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