Big Data Big Dupe

Big Data Big Dupe, A little book about a big bunch of nonsense is the latest book from the renowned Stephen Few. Few is author of a host of bestselling books and articles on the area of data and data visualization. The back cover tells us the premise of the book, “If data is the new oil, Big Data is the new snake oil”. It’s a nice short book that would take only a couple of hours to read but below I’ve picked out some of my favourite quotes/lines from the book.

It should be called data sensemaking not data analytics

Tapping into the potential of data involves data sensemaking. I prefer this term over the more popular term ‘analytics’ because it better fits the full range of activities that are needed. Making sense of data requires more than analysis, which, strictly speaking, is the act of breaking data down into its component parts.

Causality obscures insights

Few goes onto to heavily criticize the work of Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier when they offer the extraordinary thought that “Correlations are powerful not only because thy offer insights, but also because the insights they offer are relatively clear. These insights often get obscured when we bring causality back into the picture”

This is unbelievably dangerous territory and kind of staggering that this kind of thinking exists.


We seem to be suffering from a new delusional disorder – Petahilia – an inordinate love for exceptionally large data sets. More data does not alter the path to understanding.

We No Longer Need Subject Matter Experts

This is part of larger section on the book on people who believe data does the work for us. Of course this sin’t true but it’s often the narrative that is painted stats v’s gut or stats v human. Few points out

All true experts are informed by data. The best experts are well informed by data. Data about things existed long before the digital age. Nothing about data in recent years has changed this.

He goes on to quote Google chief economist, Hal Varian

Data is so widely available and so strategically important that the scarce thing is the knowledge to extract wisdom from it.

Something most good analysts are only too aware of is the need for this cross-over of data and Subject Matter Experts.

Analytical skills do not replace or supplant subject matter expertise, they inform it.

Data will forever remain untapped inert, and worthless without the expertise that is required to make sense of it and tie it to existing knowledge.

The Goal

In summing up Few states a goal that is often forgotten

The goal is understanding, not amassing data. Better yet, the goal is better decisions and actions that are based on understanding.

Ultimately if your analysis leads to no greater understanding or doesn’t ever alter the decisions made, you must ask what is the point.

The value of information should be measured in terms of useful outcomes. Did your understanding increase? If so, did the understanding relate to things that matter? If so, did that understanding produce better decisions and actions? Only when you can answer ‘Yes’ to each of these questions was the information – and the technology that helped you understand it – worthwhile.

Check out the book here



Rob Carroll. Founder of The Video Performance Analyst. Always learning.