Craving Data

While abroad this summer, I frequently chose restaurants for meals based on the highest-ranking venue on a travel app. Why risk not getting the best outcomes on the rare times you spend money going abroad? Why not remove uncertainty about selecting the best place to go, when it’s been done for you? Data saves the day.

I now don’t really remember where I went and suspect my experience would have varied very little if I had gone to a restaurant of a similar score, or even a far lower score. At times, I was rather underwhelmed despite hopes being raised by a very high score. Relying on travel app data is increasingly common among all ages. My technologically bereft father also latched onto a travel app this summer, selecting for us where to eat in Woodstock, Oxfordshire based on the highest-ranking restaurant. Dry, tough roast was served after a two hour wait.

Uncertainty is a feature of human existence and one modern cure is to collect, store and display ever increasing amounts of numerical data. It is frequently pointed out that accumulating likes, retweets, love, or equivalent on social media assure us that our time spent photographing or typing was worthwhile or that the decision to go to a certain place was justified. Data plays another role too in various realms of life, of helping us to navigate our way to certainty in an uncertain world.

The internet has generated models that guide us in deciding between various ultimately very similar objects. On many an occasion on Amazon I have bought item A rather than item B because of .1 of a difference in the average review of each item. Google’s reviews of all shops, attractions and venues help us to plan the best days possible for us.

Contemporary politics generates data to not only guide those in the game making political decisions, but also to give insight into the way things are heading. But this data increasingly seems like a false promise. 2016 showed the dubiousness of polls. They didn’t call Brexit nor Donald Trump’s election. This summer I read in Tim Shipman’s detailed account of the EU referendum, All Out War, that the Remain campaign’s central campaign strategy of focusing solely on the economy and avoiding all talk of other issues was based on data from polling research. Apparently, there were enough voters concerned about the economic risks of Brexit that any other any other strategy was irrelevant. We know how effective this strategy proved. The relevance of data to political judgement is tenuous at best. Cicero, one of the master strategists in the History of politics, did not require hordes of data to work out his way to political success.

In pressurised schools, vast bemouths of data are generated. Schools now appoint people with the title of Data Manager. Data is generated, its advocates claim, to help predict outcomes and to flag those pupils who need further support. Schools are complex organisms rife with uncertainty. To assure stakeholders, to appease OFSTED, to hold teachers to account, all staff must contribute to the data mission. Yet, the actual impact on improving student outcomes is at best unproven, at worst a positive waste of resources in a system that has precious few of them.

Quantifiable figures may well give us temporary reassurance that we can be more confident in a prediction or a decision. But the assurance is fleeting, illusory. A sedative that blinds us to the essential arbitrariness of life. Perhaps we will for ever be searching for an elixir that removes uncertainty. But the premise of data-based decision making — numbers give insight into the world that you would be lost without — seems fundamentally dubious. “A wise man… proportions his belief to the evidence”, advised the philosopher David Hume. Yet we embrace the feeling of certainty that data can give us because it’s easier than accepting that perhaps we just don’t know.

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Teaching and Writing

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