Questions about Statistical Data

September 4, 2014

Autonomy, Recommind, and dozens of other search and content processing firms rely on statistical procedures. Anyone who has survived Statistics 101 believe in the power of numbers. Textbook examples are—well—pat. The numbers work out even for B and C students.

The real world, on the other hand, is different. What was formulaic in the textbook exercises is more difficult with most data sets. The data are incomplete, inconsistent, generated by systems whose integrity is unknown, and often wrong. Human carelessness, the lack of time, a lack of expertise, and plain vanilla cluelessness makes those nifty data sets squishier than a memory foam pillow.

If you have some questions about statistical evidence in today’s go go world, check out “I Disagree with Alan Turing and Daniel Kahneman Regarding the Strength of Statistical Evidence.”

I noted this passage:

It’s good to have an open mind. When a striking result appears in the dataset, it’s possible that this result does not represent an enduring truth or even a pattern in the general population but rather is just an artifact of a particular small and noisy dataset. One frustration I’ve had in recent discussions regarding controversial research is the seeming unwillingness of researchers to entertain the possibility that their published findings are just noise.

An open mind is important. Just looking at the outputs of zippy systems that do prediction for various entities can be instructive. In the last couple of months, I learned that predictive systems:

  • Failed to size the Ebola outbreak by orders of magnitude
  • Did not provide reliable outputs for analysts trying to figure out where a crashed airplane was
  • Came up short regarding resources available to ISIS.

The Big Data revolution is one of those hoped for events. The idea is that Big Data will allow content processing vendors to sell big buck solutions. Another is that massive flows of unstructured content can only be tapped in a meaningful way with expensive information retrieval solutions.

Dreams, hopes, wishes—yep, all valid for children waiting for the tooth fairy. The real world has slightly more bumps and sharp places.

Stephen E Arnold, September, 2014


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