Pete Warden of the O’Reilly Report discusses The Philosophical Breakfast Club today in a post on “Lesons of the Victorian Data Revolution.” One point Warden stresses is that “What’s really useful about historical analogies is that you can see how they played out in the long run.” I agree–and that’s what I love about reading and writing historical works!
Focusing on Whewell’s work on the tides, Warden suggests a parallel between today’s concept of “crowdsourcing” and the way Whewell gathered hundreds of observers from around the globe to make simultaneous tidal observations. And Warden uses that analogy to draw interesting conclusion for scientists working with data sets today. “The villians of the tidal story were the harbor masters who hoarded their information, but in fact that was only a small part of the value they offered. Despite incredibly detailed maps of every port, we still rely on their descendants to pilot commercial ships into harbor. There’s a world of knowledge about currents, shifting sand banks and traffic patterns that it hasn’t been possible to compress into numbers or rules.” (In fact, Whewell’s realization that this was the case is what caused him to give up his goal of discovering universal tidal laws.)
Warden claims that those who gather data sets need to retain some “humility”–and not expect that their numbers are going to solve every scientific problem. And, most importantly, I think, he notes that specialists need to be involved in efforts to educate the general public about the meaning and limits of such data sets. “The Victorian example shows,” Warden concludes, “that if we’re going to improve the world with data, it’s absolutely essential we stay grounded in reality.”
Read Warden’s full post here.