Monthly Archives: August 2016

Data, Data Everywhere…

In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge lamented “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” There seems to be no better way to describe our situation today with regard to information. We sail upon a vast ocean of data and yet we die of thirst. Indeed, we are too often deluged by great waves of facts that batter us relentlessly to and fro upon treacherous seas of data.

It feels particularly disconcerting for me to write this article. In my book, Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (see here), I promote the importance of elevating facts above beliefs. After all, facts should reflect reality. They should be the basis upon which truth is known. Today however, data seems to be used far more effectively to support beliefs, fantasies, and lies than it is used to reveal truths. Indeed, those who wish to sell us nonsense don’t often bother to invoke the bible or faith anymore – they invoke their own “facts” instead.

One reason that facts have become the new champions of beliefs and cons is the sheer amount of it. We now have so much data that one can mine anything they want from the endless mountains of the stuff that we have produced. Misrepresented facts can now be dredged up to fabricate lies far easier than spinning magical stories of gods and devils.

Nowhere is this new perversion of facts more true than in politics. Today politicians like Donald Trump incessantly cite completely misleading facts to support their beliefs and positions and to outright lie. Even if the majority of people do not believe their “trumped up” facts, they nevertheless conclude that all facts are suspect and that no facts can be trusted. This tangibly undermines the level of rational thinking of our entire culture and leaves us without any sound basis for making good decisions as a society.

In his excellent Op-Ed (see here), William Davies points out that “they [facts] seem to be losing their ability to support consensus.” According to Davies, there is clear agreement that “We have entered an age of post-truth politics.” This new age of bullshit is fueled not by assertions of faith, but by assertions of facts. As Davies further points out, “Rather than sit coolly outside the fray of political argument, facts are now one of the main rhetorical weapons within it.

So facts have become the new bullshit. We claim to care about facts, but only because, as with the bible, we can always find something in them to support our beliefs and prejudices and self-interest. Our abundance of data seems to be only serving to diminish and undervalue it; to make it increasingly vulnerable to manipulation, misrepresentation, and lies by half-truth. The sheer volume of it makes it far more difficult to say anything with certainty without some other bit of data seeming to contradict it.

And this perversion and misuse of facts is not just true in politics but has become the new normal in all walks of life. All too often journalists and pundits do not pursue facts to reveal truth, but rather invoke them to advocate for opposing sides of an issue. This makes great theatre, but does little to advance the important questions that we face. It instigates and perpetuates conflict rather than help reach a sound fact-based consensus.

Even scientists, our gatekeepers and guardians of fact, all too often emphasize only those facts that advocate for their positions rather than serving the far greater goal of advancing science as a quest for truth.

Abandoning facts is simply not an option. Allowing the manipulators to turn all fact-based thinking into rationalization games and data manipulation exercises is not an option because without sound facts good decisions simply cannot be made. If we allow facts to be coopted by magical thinkers, by self-serving politicians, or even by well-meaning advocates, we might as well put the psychic hotline staff in charge of our fates.

What is the answer? We must reclaim facts. We must become smarter consumers of facts who are no more likely to be fooled by the bogus facts cited by manipulative politicians or corporations any more than we are by laughably ambiguous bible citations and interpretations. We must learn to recognize valid data and sound conclusions amidst all the cherry-picking and false claims. We must learn to treasure and respect fairly presented facts as diamonds amongst all the heaps of rubble and fool’s gold that we have to sift through every day.

Our overabundance of data should make us value – and demand – sound analysis and conclusions based on that data all that much more.


An Alternate View of Automation

People are rightfully concerned about robotics and automation costing us jobs. A report issued by the World Economic Forum early this year (see here) projected that 5.1 million jobs will be lost by 2020 across the 15 leading economies. This loss is attributed to “labor market changes” which includes robotics and automation. But for sake of this discussion, let’s blame robots for all 5.1 million lost jobs.

Tim Worstall, unsurprisingly a contributor to Forbes Magazine, puts this number into a less gloomy light (see here). He points out that while this 5.1 million figure sounds huge, it is out of a total labor pool of about 1.68 billion workers. This translates to a projected unemployment increase of only 0.3%, well below the noise level in these projections. Coincidentally, I wrote a recent article about how statistics are often reported in a very misleading fashion (see here).

RobotOf course job loss is not the only concern or even the major concern. The number of people forced to retrain and change jobs is not included in these projections. Certainly jobs always evolve, but periods of rapid and widespread job disruption are nevertheless painful and difficult. Even those who can transition through the major upheaval being caused by automation and globalization may find themselves forced into jobs they no longer love. More importantly those new jobs may pay far less than the old ones. This loss of standard of living must be mitigated through responsible corporate and governmental policies.

But I contend that human nature will win out in the end over automation. Automation ostensibly promises greater efficiency but this is simply counter to human nature. I’ve written in the past about the tendency of really smart people to come up with astoundingly convoluted solutions to simple problems (see here). Given that tendency, smart people will naturally direct automation toward enabling more complicated systems rather than merely replacing humans in existing ones.

Our tendency toward complication is synergistic with another characteristic of human nature – empire building. In my book on business management (see here), I talk at length about how inefficiency is ironically desirable in the workplace. Contrary to typical intuition, deadwood workers are assets while high-performers are obstacles to the inherent goal of managers to expand their head counts and their budgets. Therefore, automation will be unavoidably applied in such a way as to increase human headcounts by increasing complexity rather than decreasing headcounts through greater efficiency.

Here’s just one example. Ten years ago I designed and developed a customer management system for my employer for negligible cost. Ongoing support costs were also negligible. But this simple, robust, and powerful system would never be replicated today. Now there are new “automation” frameworks available designed to make this easier. But, despite all the promised efficiencies of moving to an automation platform, no jobs were lost in this transition. Quite the opposite, implementing this new system required literally hundreds of people and tens of millions of dollars, not to mention a huge explosion in personnel required to support it moving forward. The benefits are very debatable, but the costs are not.

In this as in many cases, the automation that one might fear would cut jobs proves to dramatically increase the number of jobs needed to support far more complex and fragile systems. Automation, when implemented in accordance with our human nature and self-interest, is likely to create many, many new jobs overall. While this won’t help with the disruption problem, loosing net jobs overall is not likely to be a problem.

Human nature, and the benefits that inefficiency and complexity offer for empire-building, effectively protects us from a future where automation takes over all our jobs.