The PBS (Public Bullshit) of Big Data

Tomorrow, February 24, PBS will air a new documentary titled “The Human Face of Big Data.” I’m a longtime supporter of PBS, but on occasion they get it wrong (e.g., when they provide a showcase for charlatans such as Deepak Chopra). In this new documentary, they apparently get much of it wrong by putting a happy face on Big Data that ignores the confusion, false claims, and all but one of the risks that it promotes. The tech journalist Gil Press has skillfully revealed the documentary’s flaws in a review for Forbes titled “A New Documentary Reveals a One-Dimensional Face of Big Data.” Gil and I had a chance to get acquainted a few years ago and I’ve come to appreciate the voice of sanity that he often raises in response to technological hype and misinformation. I strongly recommend that you read Gil’s review to restore balance to the force.

Take care,


One Comment on “The PBS (Public Bullshit) of Big Data”

By Dale Lehman. February 25th, 2016 at 7:14 am

I’m glad to see this caught your attention. Since I teach in a data analytics program, I watched the show – with trepidation, as I had read some of the hype ahead of the show. But it was much worse than I feared. On one hand, there were some attempts to provide a balanced view of benefits and costs of big data (although the more I reflect on it, the more biased the view really was). What I found most disturbing – and which I think is most relevant to this blog (I was thinking about posting this in your subsequent post, but this is where it belongs) – was that the music drowned out the message throughout the show. I found it distracting and disturbing. It was the audio analog of the default blue background slides of powerpoint.

It struck me as completely ironic that a show about big data, exemplified style over substance. The music – nice high tech sounding – was so distracting from the content that it took me a long time to figure out what was wrong with the content. And there was plenty wrong – biased spin on data issues, confusing communication technology and big data (sure they overlap, but they are not quite the same thing – showing how cell phones have changed people’s lives is a bit off the point of big data – and, the role of cell phones in the “Arab spring” certainly could and should breed a deeper discussion about that topic). Of course, it was only an hour show and it can’t go into depth on everything. But that is no excuse for drowning out the message to leave people with some generic superficial feeling that “the world is changing and changing quickly.”

I don’t believe the producers of the show did this intentionally or maliciously. I think it is symptomatic of the same issues you write about consistently. This is the triumph of style over substance; the point is to convey a feeling (or perhaps reinforce it), not to stimulate understanding, thinking, or discussion. It also struck me like the infographic I have written to to you about ( It is also just like any of the myriad visual displays that emphasize animation, novel graphics, etc. but at the expense of sensible content.

So, what accounts for all these disturbing trends? Our attention span has become so short, and the premium price for grabbing attention has grown so large, that there is nothing left for understanding, critical thinking, or even clear thinking. In the world of “big data” this is likely to become much worse. One of the people involved in this PBS show even claimed that big data means the end to statistics. Presumably, the idea is that with huge amounts of data, no inferential techniques are needed any more. While there is some truth to that statement, it is grossly misleading and dangerous. Descriptive data analysis is indeed become most important, but doing it well is critical. Poor displays and presentation serve to give us feelings and to confirm biases. Those are the tools for mass indoctrination, not critical thinking and better decision making.

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