More Data is Bad for a Man

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, on data:

In business and economic decision making, reliance on data causes severe side effects—data is now plentiful thanks to connectivity, and the proportion of spuriousness in the data increases as one gets more immersed in it. A very rarely discussed property of data: it is toxic in large quantities—even in moderate quantities. (Antifragile, p. 126)

Taleb defends this in terms of signal versus noise. Signal is information that makes sense. It is useful. You can use it to act. Noise is everything else. The more data you collect, the more chance you have of capturing some sort of signal, right? Actually, the opposite is true, thanks to the limits of man.

It all has to do with time. If you check data rarely, you see a larger slice of time, which lets you filter out anything redundant or irrelevant. You only see value over time. The more frequently you look at data, Taleb says, the more likely it is that most of what you see is noise. Take the example of the newspaper: if you glance at the news once a year, you have a much easier time drawing out the important stories than if you glance once a day. And if you glance multiple times in an hour, as so many with “smart” phones do, you’re filling your mind with noise without a chance for a signal to break through. (Part of the responsibility rests with newspapers, surely. “Newspapers,” says Taleb, “should be of two-line length on some days, two hundred pages on others—in proportion with the intensity of the signal. But of course they want to make money…”)

In other words, the deluge of information robs you of your ability to see things in their proper context. It is not ambivalent, it is actively harmful. A word of wisdom for those who make decisions, such as, say, voting someone into office: the less information you ingest, the clearer your thoughts will be.