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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 24.1 > Duped by Data Mining

Duped by Data Mining

The photo for this illustration is of the Alabama Hills in California. It was taken by David Patton.

DATA MINING INVOLVES RANSACKING DATA AND searching for patterns, without being motivated by theories, common sense, or wisdom. The inescapable problem is that patterns can always be found, even in random numbers, so finding a pattern proves nothing at all.

Decades ago, data mining was considered a sin, akin to plagiarism. If someone presented research that seemed implausible or too good to be true (for example, a near perfect correlation), a rude retort was “data mining!”

Nowadays, data mining is often considered a virtue, not a vice. In 2008, Chris Anderson, Editor-in- Chief of Wired, wrote an article with the provocative title, “The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete.” Anderson argued:

The new availability of huge amounts of data, along with the statistical tools to crunch these numbers, offers a whole new way of understanding the world. Correlation supersedes causation, and science can advance even without coherent models, unified theories, or really any mechanistic explanation at all.

A 2015 article in The Economist argued that macroeconomists (who study unemployment, inflation, and the like) should abandon the scientific method and, instead, become data miners:

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BEHE’S LAST STAND COLUMNS The SkepDoc: Is Low-Dose Radiation Good for You? The Questionable Claims for Hormesis, by Harriet Hall, M.D. • The Gadfly: Define Your Terms (or, Here we Go Again), by Carol Tavris ARTICLES Making Gasoline from Water: John Andrews and the Invention of a Legend • Online Gaming: A Virtual Experiment in the Dark Side of Human Nature • Duped by Data Mining • How Science Will Explain and Fix Fake News • The Cult of Falun Gong: A Dance Troupe and Victimhood Raises Big Money • The Opioid Epidemic Misunderstood • Why the Human-Centered View Has Not Served us Well • Behe’s Last Stand: The Lion of Intelligent Design Roars Again • Straw Man on a Slippery Slope: The Case Against the Case Against Postmodernism • A Disproof of God’s Existence REVIEWS Reviews of: The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure; The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake; Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits; Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post- Facts, and Fake News; Hoax: A History of Deception: 5000 Years of Fakes, Forgeries, and Fallacies; Truth’s Fool: Derek Freeman and the War Over Anthropology JUNIOR SKEPTIC Quest for the Truth about Dungeons and Dragons