Robert McNamara and the Dangers of Big Data at Ford and in the Vietnam War | MIT Technology Review
The use, abuse, and misuse of data by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War is a troubling lesson about the limitations of information as the world hurls toward the big-data era. The underlying data can be of poor quality. It can be biased. It can be misanalyzed or used misleadingly. And even more damning, data can fail to capture what it purports to quantify.
The dictatorship of data ensnares even the best of them. Google runs everything according to data. That strategy has led to much of its success. But it also trips up the company from time to time. Its cofounders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, long insisted on knowing all job candidates’ SAT scores and their grade point averages when they graduated from college. In their thinking, the first number measured potential and the second measured achievement. Accomplished managers in their 40s were hounded for the scores, to their outright bafflement. The company even continued to demand the numbers long after its internal studies showed no correlation between the scores and job performance.
Google’s obsession with such data for HR purposes is especially queer considering that the company’s founders are products of Montessori schools, which emphasize learning, not grades. By Google’s standards, neither Bill Gates nor Mark Zuckerberg nor Steve Jobs would have been hired, since they lack college degrees.
Big data will be a foundation for improving the drugs we take, the way we learn, and the actions of individuals. However, the risk is that its extraordinary powers may lure us to commit the sin of McNamara: to become so fixated on the data, and so obsessed with the power and promise it offers, that we fail to appreciate its inherent ability to mislead.