Mark D. White
Ever since Nate Silver pulled a Babe Ruth 527 times on election night, the virtues of "big data" have been hailed widely in the press. But David Brooks strikes a cautionary note in today's New York Times, correctly noting that data by itself cannot solve problems and making the point that qualitative judgment is necessary throughout the processes of data collection, interpretation, and implementation.
Though data wasn't "big" in the 1920s, we saw these points illustrated in the third season of Downton Abbey. Matthew Crawley, heir to the Downton estate, urges Lord Grantham to modernize the way the land is farmed, but Grantham is concerned more with the well-being of the tenant farmers and others who live off the estate. Crawley certainly has the data and the analysis to back up his claims that modernization is necessary to save the estate from bankruptcy, but Grantham makes him see the human side of the equation as well. It takes Tom Branson, the Irish revolutionary and former chaffeur who scandalously married Grantham's younger daughter, to broker an agreement between the two that promises to make the estate solvent while ensuring the welfare of the tenants.
Neither Brooks nor Branson would deny that quantitative analysis is a fantastic tool for clarifying some aspects of a problem, but they stress that we can't let its apparent precision and illusory objectiveness blind us to more qualitative concerns. As economists, we must be mindful of what our data captures and—more importantly—what it leaves out, and make sure to supplement our decision-making with these neglected (often nonquantifiable) factors. Material and financial costs and benefits matter, of course, but so do concepts such as dignity, rights, justice, and fairness, which are no more easily captured in a 21st-century spreadsheet than in a 1920s financial statement.
(For more on this point, see my chapter "Value in Economics: Accentuate the Qualitative, but Don’t Eliminate the Quantitative" in Values: Sources and Readings on a Key Concept of the Globalized World, edited by Ivo DeGennaro, Brill, 2012, pp. 331-347.)