Donald Trump's shocking victory last week signals the end of an era in many ways. But perhaps the least discussed of those, at least so far, is the end of the unquestioned dominance of data in political reporting, and maybe even in business too.
Since statistician/blogger Nate Silver correctly called nearly every state in 2008 election and literally every state in 2012, data-driven journalism and political commentary has been in the ascendance, with statistics wunderkinds like Silver being praised as the next great innovation in understanding and reporting on our world.
But this time around, Silver blew it big time. To be fair, so did most mainstream media pundits. But Silver and his ilk were supposed to be more objective. Sure traditional talking heads might get lost in their own echo chamber, but the data was touted as a way out of this kind of insider bias. And by its own standards, in this election, data-driven journalism failed spectacularly.
Time to hire a humanities grad?
The postmortems from statisticians and pollsters will be ongoing for awhile as they try to determine exactly what technical mistakes they made. That's a fascinating discussion to follow if you're a data nerd yourself, but for the average business person, the shock result this year might offer a more basic and immediate takeaway -- data is incredibly useful, but it has its limits. And given that reality, you might want to reconsider the value of humanities grads, artists, and others whose work is driven by human empathy rather than number crunching.
Julianne Schultz, a professor at Griffith Centre for Creative Arts Research, made this point on The Conversation recently:
We are living in extraordinary times, times in which we need the humanities and their ability to bring insight into the human condition, to ask and take the time to tease out the answers to critical questions, to dig into the past to help make sense of the future, to develop and test ethical frameworks for dilemmas that were once unimaginable, to explore empathy...
It is a time when the humanities should be center stage, at the top table, included in every conversation and policy debate - informing, shaping, and providing nuance and those annoying complications that show that the simple answers are often wrong because they are simple....
Unfortunately the humanities are rarely if ever at the top table, and the creative arts are all too often seen as a commodity, rather than the expression of human capacity of the highest order. Instead the humanities have been marginalized, ghettoized, ridiculed, overlooked, dismissed.
As critics of a run-away reliance on data in journalism and and in business have pointed out, data rarely (if ever) answer questions we don't think to ask, and it's terribly easy to build your own biases into your mathematical models, so that all your number-crunching simply returns a more impressive and objective-looking version of your original assumptions. Numbers, in other words, can deceive, and mean little without context.
The things data can never tell you
Looking to those with an arts or humanities background can provide that context to excavate and challenge assumptions, and discover more possible interpretations of the world to test. No one is arguing against extensive use of data, but this election might just embolden those who have been calling for a better balance between numbers and old-school human empathy and imagination.
Or, as Schultz puts it, "climate change, genetic science, digitization and its disruptions, automation, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, globalization and the shifting geopolitics and distribution of wealth that follows in its wake, population growth and dislocation" are all radically reshaping our world and creating "a new epoch."
"Science and capital may be driving it, but if it is to make sense for people, the humanities and creative arts need to be present," she concludes.
Do you agree we've been relying too heavily on data and not enough on humans to make sense of our crazy world?