David Brooks is one of the most frustrating columnists I now and then read. He takes what is often a brilliant insight, launches a train of thought and then he’s off to the Milky Way.
In his NYT column today, “The Philosophy of Data“, his idea of data-ISM is very astute. Like all ISMs, it’s just another mind trap that we humans tend to fall into in our quest for the Holy Grail of perfect knowledge.
Data-ism is a subset of Scientism, something I’ve discussed often on this blog. It’s a trap within a trap that gives rise to a whole industry of shamans and apprentices who lay claim to a method–the method–for truth-saying. All of the mystical hullabaloo is built upon the silly idea that the world is litered with bits of information just waiting to be harvested and then sorted into useful knowledge that we can use to perfectly predict the future and act accordingly.
Here’s the rub. There is no data in the world out there waiting to be harvested. The universe is not made of data. It’s not made up of bits and bytes to be gathered and computed. We can only gather data AFTER we’ve decided what we value, what we want to do, and then come up with our questions about how to proceed.
We must FIRST decide where we want to go and come up with some theories–some ideas–about how to get there. Only then can we begin carving the world up into data bits to help us see if our ideas about how to go about making a better world can actually work.
There’s only one ISM worth believing in and that is Human-ISM. If we can’t believe in our ability to do right by ourselves then we may as well give up.