A column Financial times Reminds us that data – and the “bigger”, the better – is often seen as the key to the door of knowledge. It is even imagined that small data is owned by the person who chooses to share it on an open platform that belongs to someone else. (See Benedict Evans, there is no such thing as ‘data’, ” Financial timesMay 27, 2022):
This is mostly nonsense. There is no such thing as “data”, it has no value, and it does not belong to you anyway. … “Data” does not exist — There is only a lot of data. … Most of “your” data is not in you but in all interactions with other people.
But that’s not my thing, though. My point is that the misconception that anyone can first incorporate a theory, formal or intuitive, explicit or implicit, from data without indicating which data is relevant. In economics, the concept has recently been linked to Harvard University economist Raj Chetty, who apparently aims to teach microeconomic principles at first glance. The Data (see Don Boudroix, “How Icon 101B Should Be Thought,” Iconlib, January 6, 2020).
The fact that it is incompatible with the scientific way of understanding the physical or social world has been well explained by the famous science philosopher Carl Popper in several articles. Economic (“Historical Poverty,” May 1944, August 1944, and May 1945):
I believe that theories are observed as well as tested before, in the sense that they only relate to theoretical problems. Therefore, I do not believe in the “method of generalization”, that is, from the point of view that science begins with the observation from which it acquires its theories through some process of generalization or obsession. (Episode 2, pp. 134-135)
I believe that the superstition that we carry out in this way is a kind of optical illusion, and at no stage of scientific development do we begin without something of the nature of a theory, such as a hypothesis, or a superstition, or a problem. … Which somehow Guide Our observation, and helps us to choose from the myriad objects of observation that may be of interest. (Episode 3, p. 79)
Literary literature provides us with an interesting example of another kind. In a letter to his sister in 1841, the French novelist Gustave Flaubert wrote:
Since you are now studying geometry and trigonometry, I will give you a problem. A ship crossed the sea. It left Boston with a load of fur. It earns 200 tons. It’s bound for Le Havre. The mainmast is broken, the cabin boy is on the deck, there are 12 passengers, the wind is blowing east-northeast, the clock is ticking at 3:30 in the afternoon. It’s May. How old is the captain?
Since you do geometry and trigonometry, I’m going to give you a problem: a ship is at sea, it has left Boston carrying cotton, it’s 200 tons. He is on his way to Le Havre, the main chain is broken, there is a cabin boy in the forecast, the number of passengers is twelve, the wind is blowing N.-E.-E., the clock shows three o’clock in the afternoon, we are in May … Ask?
If you’re looking at determining the age of a captain or what determines it, most of the information in the universe is irrelevant. Of course, Flaubert’s proposed practice could have been a mere cryptographic mystery, but even after it was solved, nothing was shown about bringing it as a way to derive scientific law.