I was raised watching old black and white movies. Honestly, this is likely because my parents were shown these films by their parents in the same way I will be showing my children original Star Wars. One of the entertainment schedules I liked the most was to read a book and then watch the movie adaptation. One of my favorites from this was The Invisible Man from 1933. Its by far the best adaptation of H.G. Well’s book and honestly, Claude Rains is good in everything.
When I was trying to approach the topic of data versus reality, it occurred to me that Mr. Rains playing the Invisible Man is an apt metaphor. We often think of data as the honest truth of what the world looks like and “how the real world works.” The truth is that data is like the bandages worn by the Invisible man. Its often the only way we can see that which is invisible.
My background is in social science, a field of study especially invisible as it revolves around humans. We humans are messy, complicated subjects, and unlike a more solid scientific field (like physics), I cannot control human actions as easily as I can drop a marble from a window and see gravity. Yet this data (seeing the falling marble) is just a clearer picture of invisible reality’s bandages. Think of hard science data as high-definition video and social science data as standard-definition. Everyone would prefer HD. And in the absence of HD, those with SD will pretend they have high-def.
So data and reality are not the same thing, but data is the best we really have. This is why the need for reliable, unbiased, and clean data is so important. If I want to experience a delicious meal, I use all my senses to fully experience the sight, smell, touch, and especially taste of the dish. If I have poor eyesight or have lost my sense of taste, the data is lacking.
But we don’t often think of our senses as data. The most famous version of this line of thought was from Rene Descartes, who had the genius to admit that we really have extremely limited evidence for our own existence, and this comes primarily through our senses (data) and our mind (reasoning). Put into modern terms: our data is flawed but the best we have, and it is only as good as the reasoning applied to evaluate this data.
Reality is there. We know that for sure, but like the Invisible Man, it is elusive and nearly impossible to find without data covering its surfaces. This (meandering) article wasn’t intended to be a refutation or a defense of data, but merely to discuss the scope of what it can do. Data can reveal the invisible reality but not solve it. The bandages show us the invisible man, but the bandages have nothing to say about why he is invisible or what his intentions are.
The last 20 years have been kind to the data nerd. We have had a revolutionary explosion of new data as well as new ways to collect, analyze and apply that data. But let’s not think this is a miracle cure for everything. A business needs data, but it won’t solve their problems just lets them know where they are or how bad the problem is. It is still up to people to interpret the data, derive meaning from it, and use it to make decisions.
The data is support. It covers and reveals the invisible reality we are all searching and squinting desperately to see. Data can’t change reality. This isn’t a pessimistic point of view or an optimistic one. No different than saying, “its raining.” Reality doesn’t care if you wanted a sunny day. And my senses detecting falling rain and the smell of cool, ionized air can’t make it sunny.
This is why data is important, it gives us an idea of the reality that is obscured. But unfortunately, the results of data are almost always limited. People want to see Claude Rains. What we have is cloth bandages in a smoking jacket. But that is still enough to get a good idea of his shape and size, especially when he is still completely invisible.