Big Data, Bigger Politics

By Teka Thomas
posted on February 9, 2014 in Politics and Society
The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a former US Senator and UN Ambassador, once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts." I would like to amend that to say that we are entitled to opinions about what facts are relevant. Our worldview, ideology, and interests all shape our interpretation of facts. This makes the ideology and value system of policy makers crucial, especially in foreign policy.
Modern computer memory and processing power allows us to store and crunch more data than was thought possible only a decade ago, and our foreign policy makers are armed with more facts and figures than ever. This increased ability to account for economic allocation, natural resources, ecological effects, demographic changes, and political matters will both enhance and complicate of global decision making. With artificial intelligence, however, it stands to reason that there will be great breakthroughs in all types of worldwide collective action.
Data is just a means for people to make decisions. Even if you assume that all political aides provide policy makers with objective, balanced facts and figures, and that policy makers understand regression and scale, we can still debate the relevancy of any data set and how it should be put to use.
Statistical breakthroughs in managing a country’s petroleum production may be discarded if a country decides to generate solar energy and sell it. Technically efficient methods to detect white-collar crime may be tossed aside if there is a push for civil libertarian protections. Cultural and ideological factors are usually stronger than data in making these long term decisions.
Big Data will alter the worldviews of policy makers. But it will not change political decision-making. Politicians, generals, aid workers, and diplomats will never get balanced information, and we have to remember that policymakers have different agendas and will use numbers to justify their actions. We should not expect decisions worldwide to become more normed because more empirical data is available. Data alone will not change the fickle realities of world politics.