Data, decision-making, dead poets and William Bruce Cameron

I thought I’d start the week with a think-piece, particularly in the hope of getting responses that might shape my thinking.

To properly make our way in life, we must first be familiar with its dimensions, magnitudes, and uncertainties, then ask two questions:

1) How well have our decisions been evidenced, and

2) How important are those decisions?

Question 1 rates the decisions’ potential effectiveness; question 2 rates their potential impact. And once these questions have been answered, determining a decision’s soundness becomes a relatively simple matter.

If the decision’s score for evidence is plotted on the horizontal of a graph and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area yields the measure of its soundness.

You may recognise that the above paraphrases J Evans Pritchard, as quoted in the film Dead Poets Society.

(Pritchard is the fictional author of a book on understanding poetry, arguing that a poem’s greatness can be measured by the ‘area’ calculated by multiplying its score for perfection by its score for importance. The words seem to be largely lifted from the real-life work of Laurence Perrine in his book, Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry. Perrine scores significance rather than importance.)

The words, paraphrased, sum up my unease that data – open, big, mined and linked – combined with appropriate analytical techniques is often presented as all that is needed in modern decision-making. The more we measure, the more we know; the more we know, the more accurately we can predict; the more accurate our predictions, the more effective our decisions.

There is nothing wrong, as such, about this approach. But is it – as mathematicians might put it – necessary but not sufficient? What are the rules that might shape our collection, analysis and use of data? What opportunities are we prepared to not take up because they would break these rules? Or would we re-write those rules?

The obvious examples relate to personal data – both administrative and specific. At what point do we not measure more as it is intrusive, for example? Or, as the shambles illustrated – to what extent can public bodies use citizens’ data without their fully informed consent, whatever the good it might provide? The same questions apply to those companies that gather data on our shopping and service use habits.

More broadly, and in line with what I have previously asked, is the soundness of our decision-making solely to be judged through some essentially mathematical means? Or is there a place for individual and collective ideology, ethics, religious belief, morals, philosophy or whatever you might call it?

Or, as sociologist William Bruce Cameron wrote in 1963: “… not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.“

Your thoughts?

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