The Sciences

Data Fatigue

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollAug 17, 2011 2:41 PM

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Hello out there in blog-land. I've been traveling (and working!) too much to actually blog, most recently at the terrific SciFoo Camp held at Google. This is an informal "unconference," where on the first night participants scramble to a big whiteboard to suggest events for the next day and a half. I helped organize a session on "Time" that turned out to be popular, featuring short talks by Geoffrey West, Max Tegmark, David Eagleman, Mark Changizi, and Martin Rees. Other interesting sessions I went to talked about sleep, narratives, the brain, the Turing Test, and why the difficulty of putting chiral fermions on a lattice is evidence against the idea that we live in a computer simulation. (That last one was from David Tong.) But just between you and me, while staring at the intimidating whiteboard full of interesting possibilities for what to do next, I was struck by a depressing insight: I am tired of data.

This isn't to say that I am tired of experiments. We can't learn anything about the world without looking at it, and my favorite areas of physics are bubbling along with provocative new results (or at least hints thereof). When data is taken by an experiment in the cause of deciding some scientific question, that's fine. It's the fetishization of data for its own sake that I find fatiguing. It's hardly surprising that, surrounded by sci-tech folks at the Googleplex, one would be overwhelmed by talk of data collection, data visualization, data analysis, and so on. And good for them! We are being swamped by data in unprecedented forms and quantities, and it's a crucially important task to sort it all out and understand how we can use it. I'm just personally kind of exhausted by it all. (And it's my blog, so if I want to bust out the occasional irrational rant, who will stop me?) Data -- like theory! -- is a tool we use in the quest for a higher goal -- understanding. If people want to show me that they understand some unanticipated new phenomenon on the basis of some data that they collected and analyzed, I am as enthusiastic as ever. But my standards are rising for simply being impressed by new ways of gathering or visualizing data for its own sake. At least, for the moment. Next time I see a really pretty picture, I'll undoubtedly forget I said any of this.

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