April 22, 2014

Witless folly...

"Social engineers." Egad. As Tim Blair once wrote, "Nothing good ever begins with the word 'social.'" This piece is a good example.

The Limits of Big Data: A Review of Social Physics by Alex Pentland | MIT Technology Review:

...Even if we assume that the privacy issues can be resolved, the idea of what Pentland calls a "data-driven society" remains problematic. Social physics is a variation on the theory of behavioralism that found favor in McLuhan's day, and it suffers from the same limitations that doomed its predecessor. Defining social relations as a pattern of stimulus and response makes the math easier, but it ignores the deep, structural sources of social ills. Pentland may be right that our behavior is determined largely by social norms and the influences of our peers, but what he fails to see is that those norms and influences are themselves shaped by history, politics, and economics, not to mention power and prejudice. People don't have complete freedom in choosing their peer groups. Their choices are constrained by where they live, where they come from, how much money they have, and what they look like. A statistical model of society that ignores issues of class, that takes patterns of influence as givens rather than as historical contingencies, will tend to perpetuate existing social structures and dynamics. It will encourage us to optimize the status quo rather than challenge it.

Politics is messy because society is messy, not the other way around. Pentland does a commendable job in describing how better data can enhance social planning. But like other would-be social engineers, he overreaches. Letting his enthusiasm get the better of him, he begins to take the metaphor of "social physics" literally, even as he acknowledges that mathematical models will always be reductive. "Because it does not try to capture internal cognitive processes," he writes at one point, "social physics is inherently probabilistic, with an irreducible kernel of uncertainty caused by avoiding the generative nature of conscious human thought." What big data can't account for is what's most unpredictable, and most interesting, about us.

"Social Physics" can't tell you what The Good is. It can't tell you what is important, what it is that you should be looking for. I think it was Einstein who said, your theory controls what you can see.

...Once we write the algorithms needed to parse all that "big data," many sociologists and statisticians believe, we'll be rewarded with a much deeper understanding of what makes society tick...

No you won't. You will just see whatever you already believe. Like those academics who, from time to time, "prove" by "scientific" research that Republicans are crazy and conservatives are stupid. Or that Australian "scientist" who proved that those who deny the Climate Change Religion are more likely to believe crazy conspiracy theories.

You can see here the fundamental absurdity of liberalism, which is always, deep down, the idea that we humans can guide ourselves, by our own reason, without reference to external landmarks. Even if it worked, this kind of thinking can't tell you where you should try to go.

...What really excites Pentland is the prospect of using digital media and related tools to change people's behavior, to motivate groups and individuals to act in more productive and responsible ways...

"More productive" of what? Who defines "responsible?" Wanna bet that "science" will tell us that social scientists from MIT are the ideal candidates for such power?

Posted by John Weidner at April 22, 2014 6:35 PM
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