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Humanist Archives: July 1, 2021, 6:42 a.m. Humanist 35.118 - phantoms of Big Data

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 35, No. 118.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
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        Date: 2021-07-01 05:34:10+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty <>
        Subject: phantoms of Big Data

This is to draw your attention (if you wish it drawn) to a review of the
following book in Metascience 30, 335–338 (2021), Frank Cabrera,
"Correlation isn’t good enough: causal explanation and Big Data", on
Gary Smith and Jay Cordes, The phantom pattern problem: The mirage of
Big Data (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020). From the review:

> In their book The Phantom Pattern Problem: The Mirage of Big Data,
> economist Gary Smith and statistician Jay Cordes demonstrate with an
> arsenal of examples derived from such diverse areas as sports,
> finance, gambling, astronomy, medicine, etc., the pervasiveness of
> so-called phantom patterns, i.e., coincidental past correlations that
> have little to no future predictive value. In addition to
> illustrating the ease with which humans can be fooled by these
> coincidental correlations, the authors provide many strategies
> throughout the book to avoid being misled by phantom patterns. The
> book is written in a highly engaging, conversational style, is
> largely non-technical, and is therefore suitable for a wide range of
> audiences.

The reviewer cites from the book the example of "an observed correlation
between the rise in reported murders and the rise in iPod sales between
2004 and 2006". Cabrera concludes:

> This example serves as a cautionary tale: even experts can be
> bewitched by misleading patterns, a danger that has become more acute
> in the era of “Big Data,” an age in which we now have the ability to
> gather, process, and analyze massive quantities of data.

When will we learn? 


Willard McCarty,
Professor emeritus, King's College London;
Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews;  Humanist

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