The Data Delusion and the JFK Files
Science can't solve the CIA's credibility problem.
In a fascinating essay on the growth (and limitations) of data science, Harvard professor Jill Lepore distinguishes “Data” from three other types of knowledge which she labels, “Mysteries,” “Facts, and “Numbers.” She offers a metaphor. Picture these forms of knowledge in a four-drawer file cabinet.
Mysteries are things only God knows, like what happens when you’re dead. That’s why they’re in the top drawer, closest to Heaven. A long time ago, this drawer used to be crammed full of folders with names like “Why Stars Exist” and “When Life Begins,” but a few centuries ago, during the scientific revolution, a lot of those folders were moved into the next drawer down, “Facts,” which contains files about things humans can prove by way of observation, detection, and experiment. “Numbers,” second from the bottom, holds censuses, polls, tallies, national averages—the measurement of anything that can be counted, ever since the rise of statistics, around the end of the eighteenth century. Near the floor, the drawer marked “Data” holds knowledge that humans can’t know directly but must be extracted by a computer, or even by an artificial intelligence.
In her New Yorker article, Lepore explains how the Cold War, defense spending (stimulated by endless wars), and digital technology have driven today’s obsession with Data (a.k.a. data science, a.k.a. Big Data) to the detriment of other three modes of knowing.
Lepore doesn’t say it but one of the Mysteries remaining in the top drawer is the assassination of JFK, what President Richard Nixon called “the who shot John angle.“
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