Will the availability of Big Data permit the social sciences to collect objective information, test hypotheses, and provide predictions in ways traditionally possible only for the hard sciences? In this book, a bright young economist argues that that the answer may be yes.
The title, Everybody Lies, refers to the fact that people lie, a lot, about all sorts of things. They lie in interviews, on surveys, and even on anonymous opinion polls. They even lie to themselves. Until recently, the best way for social scientists to understand what people were thinking and feeling was to ask them. But because people lie, the information collected was unavoidably flawed. Enter Big Data. It seems a person’s internet searches and online activity are better predictors of their behavior than what they are likely to tell you. Mining such data is becoming not only a powerful tool for the social sciences but also a big business.
Despite the author’s undergraduate degree in philosophy, he doesn’t address the question of whether or not this is a ‘good’ thing. He makes few value calls. He simply demonstrates that these data are out there, and they can be used to understand, predict, and even manipulate human behavior. But there is an an unaddressed ethical question here. Can special interests successfully manipulate human attitudes and behavior for selfish economic or political gain? Are they doing so already? That’s a rhetorical question, of course. Advertisers and politicians have been waging wars of domination for the minds of people for years, but now with Big Data, they’re better armed. My cynical soul quivers at the thought.