Another call for the need for theory when working with big data

Big data is not just about allowing researchers to look at really large samples or lots of information at once. It also requires the use of theory and asking new kinds of questions:

Like many other researchers, sociologist and Microsoft researcher Duncan Watts performs experiments using Mechanical Turk, an online marketplace that allows users to pay others to complete tasks. Used largely to fill in gaps in applications where human intelligence is required, social scientists are increasingly turning to the platform to test their hypotheses…

This is a point political forecaster and author Nate Silver discusses in his recent book The Signal and the Noise. After discussing economic forecasters who simply gather as much data as possible and then make inferences without respect for theory, he writes:

This kind of statement is becoming more common in the age of Big Data. Who needs theory when you have so much information? But this is categorically the wrong attitude to take toward forecasting, especially in a field like economics, where the data is so noisy. Statistical inferences are much stronger when backed up by theory or at least some deeper thinking about their root causes…

The value of big data isn’t simply in the answers it provides, but rather in the questions it suggests that we ask.

This follows a similar recent argument made on the Harvard Business Review website.

I like the emphasis here on the new kinds of questions that might be possible with big data. There are a couple of ways these could happen:

1. Uniquely large datasets might allow for different comparisons, particularly among smaller groups, that are more difficult to look at even with nationally representative samples.

2. The speed at which the experiments can be conducted through means like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk means more can be done more quickly. Additionally, I wonder if this could help alleviate some of the replication issues that pop up with scientific research.

3. Instead of having to be constrained by data limitations, big data might give researchers creative space to think on a larger scale and more outside of the box.

Of course, lots of topics are not well-suited for looking at through big data but such information does offer unique opportunities for researchers and theories.

Pondering 24+ hours of no electricity

I recently wrote about a question that could garner some interesting responses from students: “what does civilization as we know it rely on?” I suggested electricity would be high on the list of technological advancements and after a 24+ hour period last week without power, I have some additional thoughts about something we take for granted.

1. Having no power even for a few days had me wondering about premodern and modern sleeping patterns. Without electricity, one would really benefit from getting up with the sun rising and going to sleep at dark. Were there night owls before electricity or is this a modern condition?

2. Having refrigerators and freezers helps remove us from the process by which food is made. The daily process of purchasing or producing fresh food is unnecessary with electricity but is more likely if one can’t store food for long periods of time.

3. Most of our modern entertainment and information gathering relies on electricity.

4. Natural light within a house becomes much more important without the possibility of electrical lighting. The trend in recent years is toward more natural light and while this may be aesthetically pleasing and more green, it also provides some insurance when there is no power.  

5. If we get to a point where we all have electric cars, what happens then in a power outage? Is this an added bonus of the Chevy Volt which also can run on gas?

6. I would be interested in knowing how the electrical grid is set up. While I know this is secret information (trade secrets plus avoiding mischief and crime), I wonder how redundant the grid is. That is, how many homes and businesses are connected in such a way that electricity can reach the building by several paths meaning it would be more difficult to knock out the power?

7. Why not include short-term, a few days or so, backup systems or small electricity generators (solar, gasoline, etc.) in new homes? Between electricity outages and people worried about a collapse of modern society, might there be a market for this?

Explaining our social world to alien visitors

Sociology has a meme involving aliens: what would someone from Mars observe or conclude if they came to Earth and looked at modern society? Although it doesn’t come from a sociologist, here is an update on this idea that includes McMansions:

Since they haven’t answered, we could assume that the humans in space aren’t sophisticated enough to interpret our radio signals.

But just imagine how we can help them when we do find them. We can teach them everything we know and speed up their evolution into modern man in a flash. We could have them skip over the stone age, the bronze age, the iron age, the industrial revolution, and be flipping microchips and tweeting by sunset. How exhilarating it will be for us to teach them about fire and wheels. We could bypass the telegraph, and give them 3DTV! Imagine their excitement, moving from a cave to a McMansion with granite countertops? Once they learn how to use all the gadgets — iPod, iPad, iPhone — they would only need to learn the basics of reading and math.

The sequence of what we teach would be important. It would be terrible to show them how to accumulate stuff before we taught them how to defend themselves from those who would take their stuff away. Would spears be good enough or would we need to give them guns, guided missiles, or maybe an atomic bomb? And if they come from a tribal background, would every tribe need an atomic bomb?…

Of course, there is a chance that humans, way out there in space, have been receiving our signals. Maybe, they’re a lot smarter than we imagine. Maybe, they know all about us. Maybe, they have decided it’s better not to answer our call.

This may seem like a silly exercise but it has some value: it can be hard to take an outsider’s perspective of our own world. By trying to adopt the viewpoint of someone who might come from a completely different social system (and planet), it helps us take a broader and overhead look at our own actions and social relations.

I sense some satire here about showing our visitors 3DTV, McMansions, and iPads. This sounds like a suggestion that we pay too much attention to technological and physical comforts without remembering the foundation beneath them such as social structures, basic tools, government, and moral values. This seems related to the question of what civilization relies on.

Basic sociological question: “what does civilization as we know it rely on?”

Big questions about society can be great for Introduction to Sociology courses. Here is are the sorts of questions that I think could work quite well:

So, what sort of machines do you need to create an industrial civilization—kind of like the ones we have now, but more sensibly sourced. I remember taking a sociology course years ago where we started out with a similar question, although we conceived the question more broadly—what does civilization as we know it rely on? The answer then (decades ago, before the impact of The Whole Earth Catalog had been felt) was something along the lines of “technology.” But this is a much better question.

If we stuck with the second question here, “what does civilization as we know it rely on?”, I could imagine a class could generate a lot of answers:

1. The Internet. In the vast scope of human history, this may seem silly. But for people raised in the Internet era, it would be pretty hard to imagine life without it.

2. Electricity. This makes all sorts of things possible.

3. The steam engine. This helped give rise to the Industrial Revolution.

And so on. But these are all technological changes that could go back to the plow and the wheel and illustrate the human capacity to create and utilize tools. We just happen to live in an era where such technological change is rapid and our daily lives are full of machines. But what about more cultural or sociological phenomena?

1. Language. The ability to communicate in formalized ways gave rise to oral traditions, writing, etc.

2. Government. This doesn’t necessarily have to mean the big bureaucracies of today that impressed Max Weber. But just a form of ruling or authority that helped bring about communities.

3. Sustained agriculture. This has been the traditional answer to how humans were able to create more complex societies in the Fertile Crescent. This is now being challenged by a new argument based on evidence of early religion in Turkey.

I’ll have to think about using these questions in class. They seem particularly good for helping students consider the basic building blocks of human social life before diving into specific sociological phenomena.

Former US Rep, Rhodes Scholar, says Rhodes Scholar applicants have difficulty addressing the big issues

One of the debates surrounding college education in the United States is about its purpose: should it provide more job training (specialized, professional programs) or a broader approach (liberal arts, interdisciplinary)? Heather Wilson, a former US Representative and Rhodes Scholar, argues that current Rhodes Scholar applicants (and college students in general) would benefit from a broader approach:

I detect no lack of seriousness or ambition in these students. They believe they are exceptionally well-educated. They have jumped expertly through every hoop put in front of them to be the top of their classes in our country’s best universities, and they have been lavishly praised for doing so. They seem so surprised when asked simple direct questions that they have never considered.

We are blessed to live in a country that values education. Many of our young people spend four years getting very expensive college degrees. But our universities fail them and the nation if they continue to graduate students with expertise in biochemistry, mathematics or history without teaching them to think about what problems are important and why.

Wilson suggests that ability or smarts are not the issue. Rather, it is a matter of perspective: why does a college student desire to become a world-class doctor or scholar? Can these students help address the questions that humanity has raised for millenniums?

This sounds like someone making a good case for the liberal arts. Instead of specializing at the undergraduate level (which comes in graduate programs anyway), students are encouraged to take classes in a number of subjects they may not otherwise encounter. Throughout this broader curriculum, students learn about the varied approaches for answering these big questions and how different disciplines would propose solving the big issues.