Approach ‘Big Data’ With Skepticism?

A data analyst made a very reasoned and relevant plea to business about the importance of engaging and utilizing ‘big data’…with a critical eye, ala skepticism.  That was the broad message, as I interpreted it, as delivered at a TED Talk (Susan Etlinger, September 9, 2016) that ‘data doesn’t always create meaning, instead, people give meaning to data’. Certainly, no disagreement from me!

But, as many readers of this blog know, growing percentages of us…through our social interactions and employment, are already engaged – embedded in environments in which machine learning and/or artificial intelligence exist and is expanding at a rapid pace.

However, outputs remain variously absent important, necessary, and relevant contextual input…and, machines, unable to incorporate minimal, if any, context to the data which they dutifully produce, represent a sound reason why we; consumers and users, are obliged to approach ‘big data’ output through respectfully critical lens!

To incorporate timely, relevant, circumstance specific intuition (contextually) to big data’s output… at the earliest stages of its development and elaboration process is essential.  In other words, inputting that which is essentially what we (people) generally know intuitively. That’s the context!

Guy Roz, TED Radio Hour host, appropriately asked Susan Etlinger (of the San Francisco based Altimeter Group) for a TedTalk, are we giving too much credit to big data?  After all, we remain largely in its early stages of big data’s formal recognition and development  More specifically, Roz posits, have users of big data blissfully entered an arena where they (presumably) believe what the data is telling (describing) for them, when actually, it’s too early for conclusions to be drawn with sufficient precision, clarity, and relevance to the challenge being addressed?

Some more familiar with the evolution – revolution of big data, i.e., Etlinger’s level of expertise…are suggesting some business leaders are (too) willingly ceding ground (decisions) to those inclined to use ‘big data’ more or less as blunt instruments, i.e., approach – engage in business conversations by stating, here’s the data…end of story!

More specifically, Etlinger draws attention to those using – applying ‘big data’ outcomes…in a manner to arrogantly signal a conversation has ended with little or no need for further discussion!  In this context, Etlinger implies ‘big data’ has variously become ‘weaponized’ as the ‘proverbial blunt instrument’.

To be sure, big data can be used in many useful – helpful ways…but, big data outcomes can also be misunderstood and thus, poorly – improperly applied.  Etlinger argues, quite persuasively, people, business leaders, and policy makers alike, are obliged to become better and more consistent critical thinkers, as a component to becoming a responsible consumer – user of big data.

An example Etlinger describes are…circumstances in which people may draw the wrong or irrelevant conclusions from a three-question survey just as readily as they may with thee output of terabytes of crunched data.

  • for either, the onus is on users of the data to critically differentiate and bring as close to absolute clarity as possible the outcomes-products of big data in advance of acceptance and/or application as final factuality.

Ultimately, it’s not solely about technology, the internet, or ‘big data’…instead, it’s about people and their receptivity to critically and respectfully question, when they are presented with reams of data that may well be absent, even partially, inputs – factors indicating the incorporation of intuitive and experiential thought and relevant realities-of-the-day.

As business persons, as consumers, as citizens…each should accept a responsibility to devote more time focusing on – developing our critical thinking skills.

(This post was adapted by Michael D. Moberly from a TED Radio Hour program originally airing on September 9, 2016, titled ‘How Should Big Data Be Approached, With A Critical Eye?’ with host Guy Roz.)

Michael D. Moberly November 29, 2017 St. Louis [email protected] ‘The Business Intangible Asset Blog’ since May 2006 ‘where one’s attention, intangible assets and solutions converge’!

Readers are encouraged to explore other blog posts, papers, and books I have published at


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