From climate to covid, why data can cause a delusion


Since the arrival of coronavirus most of us have scrumptiously touched our kids and spouses in the night to check the temperature, used oximeters and even got ourselves tested for covid.

If we look at the above closely, it is easy to see that we are seeking data, the data that can comfort us, give us a bearing in a reality full of stress, and we are doing it because we are machines designed to crunch data and see what pattern it follows, so our search for data and patterns is a strong psychological drive.

Thanks to this strong drive, unlike animals that are comfortably living within the reality their senses can sense and no more, we humans have now opened a pandora’s box of augmented information sources that offer us an augmented reality.

We now have sensory tools like telescopes and microscopes that allow us to see macro and microcosm, and we now have computers that can compute in amount of information that we were unable to process and hence we can now look even deeper into even an astronomical amount of data and decipher patterns that are not visible to naked senses and naked brain.

Armed with the new information sources and processing power, we are now keen to aim the weapon of data analytics at everything around us, and hence we have now embarked into a massive operation of collecting data.

We are now taking temperature and other climatic data of planet earth every minute at few random places. So, a planet that has happily gone about its business for almost 4 billion years without its vitals being measured.

Similarly, we are now taking temperature and other health information of few apes almost every minute. So, biology that has also happily gone around its business for 3.7 billion years spawning gazillion lifeforms is also having its vitals being measured.

As data-crunching machines, we keep crunching data, be we fail to realize one fundamental problem with this madness that is engulfing us now.

This reality is a BIG BIG BIG….ad infinitum place.

And intelligence is just a survival tool evolved by life on earth to serve the purpose of tolerating this not only massive (and also chaotic) reality for only a wee bit of time.

So, the psychological drive that makes us wake up in the night to check the temperature of our loved ones is aimed at here-and-now, while the patterns that this reality has run deep, far too deep for us to use and apply with the confidence that we are fooled into thinking.

Intelligence is a short-term tool but it is the only connect we have with the reality, so we fail to notice that it is nowhere close to modelling the actual reality with all it nuances and complex systems to predict anything over even a small timeframe.

As we get more and more data, we are now building an illusion around us that we know the reality better, and thanks to our psychological arrogance linked with having intelligence superior to fellow animals, the illusion is now turning into a delusion.

So, instead of looking at the data and the patterns that our processors are deciphering as local wisdom, we are now falling in the trap of imaging it to be global wisdom.

From health data to climate data, we now have people with strong opinions that they call science because they are blinded by the innate love we have for patterns. There is no harm to apply intelligence and the patterns that it offers, but this is required to be done with a pinch of salt.

While we take massive decisions that we must, we also need to keep one eye on the fact that we actually are making these decisions, be it about the climate or covid, on data science that is, at best in its infancy.

We have sensed only a very small cross-section of this massive reality and the complex systems like biology that have appeared within it.

We must appreciate the absurdity that even today, we have no real “proof” for “facts” that we are using for taking decisions. Something as simple as “use mask” is also actually an intelligent guess. Ten years from now, when we would have reached deeper in bioinformatics, we may even end up realising that coronavirus had nothing to do with masks.

So, while we must collect data, process it to find patterns that it yields and use them to our benefit, we need to keep a watch on the process overwhelming us, more so as the forces of commerce are prone to do the same.

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