More data is not always better data. What we are seeking is relevant data, and as terabytes become petabytes or even exabytes, the easier it becomes to create relationships or conclusions out of thin air. Our own innate psychological biases can greatly impact how we view data or even what we seek in the data, so often we will see what we want to see. With this amount of data, virtually any point of view can find supporting evidence. This process has the chance to become increasingly hazardous.
Furthermore, and maybe most importantly, the data we gather is from the past, while the future will be a unique and complex set of circumstances. As has been said, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme." That observation is instructive when using big data to predict an uncertain future, because it reminds us of data's limitations. After all, the future, while similar in some ways to the past, will be full of novel events, and yet we are restrained by using past data as our blunt predictive tool. In these cases, data from the past will typically do a poor job of equipping decision-makers to prepare for the novelty of the future, and if these events happen to carry severe consequences…well, we have all lived through the fallout.
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While big data carries with it unprecedented opportunity to understand the world around us, it also carries significant challenges that must be dealt with both seriously and diligently. Everyone who creates, administers or utilizes big data needs to understand where the models and algorithms break down and what the consequences can be when that happens. Being right about the future much more often than we ever were previously may also create a feeling of prescience, a feeling that is illusory, and consequently, dangerous. A healthy skepticism and appreciation for the power of the data will be necessary to use it effectively, as following the data of the past blindly into the future may prove perilous.
Big data is already heavily influencing our world from baseball to the board room, and that influence will continue to grow along with available storage. Let's just keep Icarus in mind, as enhanced predictability should not be confused with enhanced stability.
Paul DePodesta is vice president of player development and scouting for the New York Mets.