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For example, big data programs for grading student essays often rely on measures like sentence length and word sophistication, which are found to correlate well with the scores given by human graders.But once students figure out how such a program works, they start writing long sentences and using obscure words, rather than learning how to actually formulate and write clear, coherent text.Consider translation programs like Google Translate, which draw on many pairs of parallel texts from different languages — for example, the same Wikipedia entry in two different languages — to discern the patterns of translation between those languages.This is a perfectly reasonable strategy, except for the fact that with some of the less common languages, many of the Wikipedia articles themselves may have been written using Google Translate.
By combining the power of modern computing with the plentiful data of the digital era, it promises to solve virtually any problem — crime, public health, the evolution of grammar, the perils of dating — just by crunching the numbers. “In the next two decades,” the journalist Patrick Tucker writes in the latest big data manifesto, “The Naked Future,” “we will be able to predict huge areas of the future with far greater accuracy than ever before in human history, including events long thought to be beyond the realm of human inference.” Statistical correlations have never sounded so good. There is no doubt that big data is a valuable tool that has already had a critical impact in certain areas. But precisely because of its newfound popularity and growing use, we need to be levelheaded about what big data can — and can’t — do.As the statistician Kaiser Fung has noted, collections of big data that rely on web hits often merge data that was collected in different ways and with different purposes — sometimes to ill effect.It can be risky to draw conclusions from data sets of this kind.A fifth concern might be called the echo-chamber effect, which also stems from the fact that much of big data comes from the web.Whenever the source of information for a big data analysis is itself a product of big data, opportunities for vicious cycles abound.