In this new age of extremes, celebrity and elitism without bounds, those that pride themselves on their enlightenment often make a big deal about being democratic in their ambitions and data driven in their thinking and reasoning.
This is also a new age of openness and deception. The increase in both is of course coupled. As openness is supported or exhibited, some of what is exposed resists and retaliates with deeper forms of deception.
And in ths new age, the old illusions also persist — like the illusions of rationality or unbiased examination or study without preconceived ideas — illusions that have a great impact on inference and our abilities to draw conclusions from observations. Democracy enters when we attempt to create a cooperative or civil society based in some semblance of truth or grasp of reality.
The problems I am focused on in this perhaps too provocatively titled article, are those caused by the use of data and democracy as tools of forceful persuasion or even hammers of coercion. While the idea that democracy is a system predisposed to tyranny is far from a new idea, the dangers in the new bandwagon of data-driven thinking seem to be less well known or thought about (even though Cathy O’Neil’s, Weapons of Math Destruction is a good start). So we will begin there.
It might be seem strange for someone who is a mathematician, with a great deal of experience in data science, who even founded the Data Driven Modeling and Analysis team at Los Alamos National Laboratory, to be concerned with or ambivalent about data driven anything.
Yet I am.
In fact I am very concerned. And the source of the concern is the inescapable fact that every inference, every conclusion and policy that is derived from data, is extracted from the data through the use of prior assumptions, many of which are unacknowledged or even very difficult to see. We can begin with the fact that we believe that rationality is the way in which truth is determined. But this is just not the case. Everything we do is framed in the deeper emotional/spiritual context in which “we live and move and have our being”.
As a result, even the decision of what data to collect is determined by our prior assumptions and preconceptions, and as a result, we can, often unconsciously, predetermine our conclusions before we even begin looking at the data.
The other problem I have with data driven scholarship is that, in its current forms, it only tells about what is, about the systems that have gained ascendancy and majority control of whatever it is that we are studying. It can say very little about what is possible. As a result, I believe that the industry of data driven scholarship and decision making will tend to reinforce what is, and limit diversity and real progress and innovation. (And by innovation, I am not talking technological innovation, but something much deeper and far reaching.)
This type of data science determines truth by, in essence, going with the majority vote in which the data doing the voting, has not only been selected by unseen and unacknowledged assumptions and biases, but is also, by its very nature, without an imagination.
What kind of data and data driven inference do I believe in? To begin with, I should say that I am very much for careful observation of the natural world, of human activity and behavior, and of the larger “inner” spiritual world on which everything is based. I think that the art of observation is a deeply neglected art, the rewards of which are little known and sorely needed. The problem lies in the fact that observation — data collection — is too often colored by stiff systems of preconception and unseen prior models of reality, influencing both choice of what to look at and what to do with the observations that are made.
Quietness and stillness as disciplines are not cultivated as ways to begin to really see beyond our current positions and perspectives. The fundamentally spiritual decision to let go and open to stillness is blocked by a complex of fear and fear inspired prejudice which are in turn based on previous experience with violation and force. Those experiences causing so many to relinquish child-like openness to reality, block them from full entry into the “kingdom of heaven”. As a result, those former children grow into adults that create systems that prevent them from entry into that illuminated kingdom and which they then use to block others from entering.
There are of course many flashes of insight that make it through the web of self-defense based preconceptions. But far too many of these quickly become part of that system that then blocks other illumination, blocking even the ability to understand the original insights correctly. The illumination falls prey to the temptations of greed for impact or fame or prestige or even simple fear, and the vision that could have been, fades.
There is of course the question of what to do about preconceptions and biases that are often predetermining results, especially in the case of data driven analyses. I believe the answer begins with opening your eyes, with taking the time to think:
- Take the time to think. The drive for bigger, better, faster has moved many people to abandon the discipline of taking time to think, to see, to feel. As a result, this basic first step to moving beyond our operating assumptions to something bigger and richer, to inspiration and growth, is severely limited.
- Time to think allows us to cultivate quietness and stillness as ways to let go and hear and see.
- We are only willing to see and hear and feel what that quietness and stillness tells us in a state of emotional safety. This implies emotional wholeness underlies this whole project. Anyone who tells you differently is misguided at best. (This place of emotional safety is not external — this is a thing of the heart, not of “safe places” or elimination of harsh environments. The world is crazy and unsafe in which the emotionally whole still find a way to thrive, without expecting the world to be kept at bay.)
- Emotional wholeness requires cultivation of connection with others opened by the understanding that differences, instead of threatening us, enrich us.
- Connecting with others, observing their bits and pieces of illumination in a state of quietness, we are enabled to take the useful bits and let the rest go. (Because of emotional wholeness, we filter and thrive. No need for trigger warnings or cocoons that wall us away from reality.)
- Data is always filtered — quietness allows you to be aware of exactly what those filters are and to replace those filters if you find better ones.
While this approach to data (observation) and the inferences from that data is not new — it has always been the path of those taking the time to think and seek illuminated inferences, this path is becoming rarer. The noisy, overconfident bubble of thought leaders, influencers and celebrities are drowning out the careful thinkers and doers.
Democracy, even in its most beneficial forms, is only as good as the data driving it. Because of the difficulty in determining what is biased and what is not, the safest route is always to promote maximal freedom, opting for mild regulation only in the cases in which to not do so would harm the principles on which the democracy is founded. When freedom and compassion and safety and a healthy economic/social ecosystem are the principles, then this job is far from easy. But as soon as the regulation is influenced by entities that do not share those values, the whole enterprise is in peril. And if, in addition to this, the data that is used is twisted by the values that do not align with the goals above, it becomes hard to see what is and is not happening.
Of course, there are macro-measurements that reveal problems. When the divide between the rich and poor threatens to engulf us, we know something is wrong. When prisons are overflowing, when the rich are rarely held accountable, while the poor have difficulty for even small offenses or even simply because they are poor or nonwhite or both — when those things become impossible to ignore, we know the system is deeply broken. And when the data is screaming and subtlety and nuance is no longer needed, when the data overwhelms preconception and prior assumptions, we know we are near a precipice.
But all is not lost.
As we learn quietness and openness to change, the data we gather and use will inform and illuminate, and the collective projects we embark on will reflect a synergy between freedom and cooperation. Time to think, quietness, and the observations made in that frame of mind will supply the light and progress that keeps the biggest collective project — the democracy we live in — alive and headed in the direction of sustainable progress.