You don't need a sophisticated algorithm or large database to calculate how many pennants (zero) that Billy "Moneyball" Beane has won in 15 years running the Oakland Athletics. But even if data-driven scouting hasn't brought rings to the diamond, sabermetrics remains influential. Authors Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier don't believe the data revolution will stop at baseball or airfare. In Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—also my publisher—197 pages, $27), they stop just short of calling for the end of the methods used at grade-school science fairs and Nature alike. "Causality won't be discarded, but it is being knocked off its pedestal as the primary foundation of meaning," they write.
Their argument: In an age of almost unlimited data, it's better to find correlations than to bother understanding why they should be so. (Who cares how lead poisoning works? Just stop drinking from lead cups.) Most examples—Beane excluded—are mildly persuasive, but also ignore our desire for meaning. "More trumps better," they argue while praising the ingenuity of Wal-Mart placing Pop Tarts next to hurricane supplies. This is popular science for people who appreciate how the humble hot dog repurposes pork slurry. Wow, perhaps; but, also, ick.
GO:Big Data's authors appear on Friday, March 15, at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St. 7:30 pm. Free.