Here at We Think as we move closer to developing our prototype, discussions about objective truth, perception, and reality among other themes keep popping up. With the happenings south of the border we are increasingly bombarded with messages from mainstream media and pop culture which drive home the message that we are living in a post-fact era and that data and objective truth are here to set us free. Popular culture and late night talk television are rampant with commentators who spout off that “people are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts” (Seth Macfarlane, Bill Maher, February, 2017). And the popular masses appear to be lapping up this rhetoric with the eagerness of robins out foraging in the early morning mist.
Nowhere has this search for a better, more objective truth or better facts been more evident than in the Big Data movement over the past 10 years. With promises of advanced and predictive analytics, for years Big Data has been selling a bill of goods that promises to bring significant enlightenment to private business, governments and the social sector alike. There is no doubt that many organizations and individuals have benefited enormously from advances made in the field and science of Big Data. But, can Big Data or data more generally, actually speak for itself?
These sentiments – ones which view data as capable of speaking for itself and sentiments that position “facts” as objective givens regardless of time, place, and socio-human context – are an interesting puzzle for us at We Think. In part, we feel that data can be a powerful tool to help us take in critical information and make sense of our world. We also think data needs to be understood and viewed within the social experience from which it’s born.
As Kate Crawford points out in her commentary for Harvard Business Review, this hype around the promise of data and what it represents becomes problematic when It leads to what she calls “data fundamentalism” or the belief that data always reflect objective truth. As Crawford points out, “data sets are not objective; they are creations of human design. We give numbers their voice, draw inferences from them, and define their meaning through our interpretations”.
Interestingly enough, it seems like our orientation and take on data and its importance makes us do funny things. Consider the following scenario: Two groups with vastly different perspectives come to a discussion, and engagement, an argument. Each side is armed with its carefully curated set of data and facts, their truth. Only those facts, those truths don’t align. Soon, the stakes are amplified when parties to the conversation double down on these objective givens or truths in the face of differing perspectives. They use their objective truths to further support and entrench themselves around substantive positions on a range of subjects. They cling to their data and facts as absolutes. And, they go into defense mode in an attempt to prove that their facts, their truth are immutable and better than anothers. I see the following scenario take place over and over again. I’m even guilty of participating in it.
Here at We Think, we have been debating how our organization can create a product and processes that help us address and move beyond these and other issues. What do you think?
Are the facts the facts?
Can there be a single truth?
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