Webb Wobbles: Do Other Data Streams Stumble Around?

October 4, 2022

I read an essay identified as an essay from The_Byte In Futurism with the content from Nature. Confused? I am.

The title of the article is “Scientists May Have Really Screwed Up on Early James Webb Findings.” The “Webb” is not the digital construct, but the space telescope. The subtitle about the data generated from the system is:

I don’t think anybody really expected this to be as big of an issue as it’s becoming.

Space is not something I think about. Decades ago I met a fellow named Fred G., who was engaged in a study of space warfare. Then one of my colleague Howard F. joined my team after doing some satellite stuff with a US government agency. He didn’t volunteer any information to me, and I did not ask. Space may be the final frontier, but I liked working on online from my land based office, thank you very much.

The article raises an interesting point; to wit:

When the first batch of data dropped earlier this summer, many dived straight into analysis and putting out papers. But according to new reporting by Nature, the telescope hadn’t been fully calibrated when the data was first released, which is now sending some astronomers scrambling to see if their calculations are now obsolete. The process of going back and trying to find out what parts of the work needs to be redone has proved “thorny and annoying,” one astronomer told Nature.

The idea is that the “Webby” data may have been distorted, skewed, or output with knobs and dials set incorrectly. Not surprisingly those who used these data to do spacey stuff may have reached unjustifiable conclusions. What about those nifty images, the news conferences, and the breathless references to the oldest, biggest, coolest images from the universe?

My thought is that the analyses, images, and scientific explanations are wrong to some degree. I hope the data are as pure as online clickstream data. No, no, strike that. I hope the data are as rock solid as mobile GPS data. No, no, strike that too. I hope the data are accurate like looking out the window to determine if it is a clear or cloudy day. Yes, narrowed scope, first hand input, and a binary conclusion.

Unfortunately in today’s world, that’s not what data wranglers do on the digital ranch.

If the “Webby” data are off kilter, my question is:

What about the data used to train smart software from some of America’s most trusted and profitable companies? Could these data be making incorrect decisions flow from models so that humans and downstream systems keep producing less and less reliable results?

My thought is, “Who wants to think about data being wrong, poisoned, or distorted?” People want better, faster, cheaper. Some people want to leverage data in cash or a bunker in Alaska. Others like Dr. Timnit Gebru wants her criticisms of the estimable Google to get some traction, even among those who snorkel and do deep dives.

If the scientists, engineers, and mathematicians fouled up with James Webb data, isn’t it possible that some of the big data outfits are making similar mistakes with calibration, data verification, analysis, and astounding observations?

I think the “Webby” moment is important. Marketers are not likely to worry too much.

Stephen E Arnold, October 4, 2022


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