The use of data is beginning to have a profound impact on our lives.
Fox News has axed Dick Morris, in large part because his election day predictions were mostly based on gut-feeling. By contrast, New York Times writer Nate Silver used his FiveThirtyEight blog to forecast the elections with hard data-crunching analysis, and predicted nearly all the elections correctly.
An interesting comparison to the dichotomy of Morris and Silver is that of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Bush, the "decider," was loved by some and reviled by others for going with his gut, and many of his decisions have still had grave impact for the U.S. five years later. Obama, on the other hand, likes to gather all information available before making a decision, and is viewed as a cool, analytical leader. Though Obama has been imperfect in some of his choices as president, he has not committed any of the glaring mistakes that are the hallmark of the Bush legacy, like the war in Iraq or the failed attempt at social security reform.
In a recent article for the New York Times, David Brooks described “data-ism,” or the use of data as a driving force for tackling problems, as becoming the new guiding light for people in the 21st century.
“If you asked me to describe the rising philosophy of the day,” he writes, “I’d say it is data-ism. We now have the ability to gather huge amounts of data.”
Even though Brooks views data-ism from a skeptical frame of mind, he cannot deny that this technological revolution is having a profound impact on how we view everything in our culture, from economics, to politics, to even sports. Look at how data (or the lack of its use) cost Dick Morris a job he had held for many years, and also his reputation as an astute predictor of political outcomes.
I would have to disagree with Brooks on the idea that data-ism is becoming a new philosophy, however. Instead, I think of data-ism as a new way of doing things that departs from philosophy and ideology. Indeed, Brooks mentions that the assumption surrounding data-ism is “that data is a transparent and reliable lens that allows us to filter out emotionalism and ideology.” But if I were to pick one philosophy that data-ism most fits in with, I would have to say it is that most anti-philosophical of philosophies: Pragmatism.
Pragmatism is a school of thought that emerged in America during the 1870s, when German idealism was experiencing its high water mark. The German Idealism of Kant, Hegel, and Marx was profoundly unsettling to the founders of Pragmatism, C. S. Pierce and William James. The rationalism and strict adherence to formal precepts of Idealism was starkly against an empiricist strain of thought for which Pierce and James were trying to advocate. Pejoratively referred to as the philosophy where “the ends justify the means,” Pragmatism sought to raise above stringent logic the unabashed claim that objectives were more important than the manner in which you reach them. “Consider the practical effects of the objects of your conception,” Pierce said in 1878. “Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object.” This statement has often been referred to as the pragmatic maxim, and who could argue with that? It basically says the effects of something are more important than the thing in itself, which would have made Kant turn in his grave.
Data-ism fits nicely within the philosophy of pragmatism because the hope of data-ism is that we can use data to cut through ideological debate and solve problems in the best manner possible. With data-ism, it doesn’t matter if you’re a liberal like Silver and Obama or a conservative like Morris and Bush; if something doesn’t work according to the data, then it doesn’t work, pure and simple. Data-ism is a new science that will have profound influence in politics, just as pragmatism, which drew inspiration from scientific breakthroughs in biology during the 1800’s, had a profound influence on politicians during the Gilded Age, when progress and reaching objectives were put on a pedestal above the human condition.
It is interesting how data, which is becoming something of an obsession in the American mind today (except at Fox News, apparently), pairs nicely with Pragmatism, that uniquely American philosophical strain. Americans have always been viewed as a people who get stuff done, and think of new and innovative ways of achieving results. Pragmatism is the philosophy of the American way of life; data-ism will become its science in the 21st century.