The difficulty of collecting, interpreting, and acting on data quickly in today’s world

I do not think the issue is just limited to the problems with data during COVID-19:

Photo by Artem Saranin on Pexels.com

If, after reading this, your reaction is to say, “Well, duh, predictions are difficult. I’d like to see you try it”—I agree. Predictions are difficult. Even experts are really bad at making them, and doing so in a fast-moving crisis is bound to lead to some monumental errors. But we can learn from past failures. And even if only some of these miscalculations were avoidable, all of them are instructive.

Here are four reasons I see for the failed economic forecasting of the pandemic era. Not all of these causes speak to every failure, but they do overlap…

In a crisis, credibility is extremely important to garnering policy change. And failed predictions may contribute to an unhealthy skepticism that much of the population has developed toward expertise. Panfil, the housing researcher, worries about exactly that: “We have this entire narrative from one side of the country that’s very anti-science and anti-data … These sorts of things play right into that narrative, and that is damaging long-term.”

My sense as a sociologist is that the world is in a weird position: people expect relatively quick solutions to complex problems, there is plenty of data to think about (even as the quality of the data varies widely), and there are a lot of actors interpreting and acting on data or evidence. Put this all together and it is can be difficult to collect good data, make sound interpretations of data, and make good choices regarding acting on those interpretations.

In addition, making predictions about the future is already difficult even with good information, interpretation, and policy options.

So, what should social scientists take from this? I would hope we can continue to improve our abilities to respond quickly and well to changing conditions. Typical research cycles take years but this is not possible in certain situations. There are newer methodological options that allow for quicker data collection and new kinds of data; all of this needs to be evaluated and tested. We need better processes of reaching consensus at quicker rates.

Will we ever be at a point where society is predictable? This might be the ultimate dream of social science if only we had enough data and the correct models. I am skeptical but certainly our methods and interpretation of data can always be improved.

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