There has arisen in our time a most singular fancy: the fancy that when things go very wrong we need a practical man. It would be far truer to say, that when things go very wrong we need an unpractical man. Certainly, at least, we need a theorist. A practical man means a man accustomed to mere daily practice, to the way things commonly work. When things will not work, you must have the thinker, the man who has some doctrine about why they work at all. It is wrong to fiddle while Rome is burning; but it is quite right to study the theory of hydraulics while Rome is burning. –Chesterton, What is Wrong with the World, Wanted: An Unpractical Man
Looking at data, reciting the data, is not the same thing as understanding and analyzing it… not anymore than reading a Quantum physics book aloud is any indication that I am a Quantum physicist. I think that focused, patient, unrelenting determination to making sense of all the facts with a coherent, tested theory is one of the least cultivated skills in our day, despite the emphasis in our education system on scientific method.
I’ve come to reflect on this issue because of a common thread that appears in discussion about analytics in the business context. Article after article has been written to address an apparently prevalent issue: we overwhelm ourselves with data, that, while possibly interesting, we fail to understand or do anything with.
I am not sure why this is. There are so many possible factors. I have a few hunches, though.
Perhaps the scientific community’s traditional emphasis on empirical data combined with Modernist atomist approaches to making sense of that data has something to do with our situation. Empirical data is anything we can see with our eyes or otherwise validate by use of the senses – supposed proof. Atomism is the assumption that simply breaking data, or matter, into smaller and smaller parts will render the atomic or basic, element that somehow explains things at the macro level.
This may affect how subjects are seen as isolated and unique, why you can’t get math and literary theory in the same room… or lesson. This shift began, more or less, with the idea that science could provide a pure method for securing knowledge about ourselves and our world. Understanding a subject means abstracting it and pulling it out of its context within other subjects. The scientific method has (tended to) be understood as implying that you have to have a controlled environment – a thing itself by itself – in order to extract reliable information about it.
Perhaps abstracting a subject does render some special perspective on it. After all, you sometimes we just have to choose something on which to focus our attention. When it comes to practicing the skill of brain surgery, I probably should not be discussing the ethical implications of Shelley’s Frankenstein. I might seriously harm my patient and probably won’t be saying anything meaningful about the book either.
But is this the whole picture? Is the goal of study only to learn brute facts about material objects? Or are we aiming for something bigger? From my point of view, probably more in line with scholastic educational theorists, we’re hoping to learn about ourselves, our history, our present culture, our future, our values and our meaning. Maybe we don’t always get that far. But most would agree, probably even many materialists, that at least asking ethical, aesthetic, cultural and existential questions is an enriching activity contributing to quality of life, even if we don’t arrive at “answers” in the scientific or deductive sense.
When you emphasize simply using more powerful microscopes instead of more powerful theories, you may get interesting things to look at, but not clear understanding. This helps make some sense of why analysis is lacking in the scientific community.
Parrots don’t know what they are talking about. Looking at raw data, no matter how granular you get, does not render a helpful theory for making sense of that data – its properties, relations and behavior. Simply stating that something is x,y,z is not the same thing as explaining what, how, why, etc. Parroting off information is not the same thing as understanding it.