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Big Data Is The New Phrenology

Have you ever heard of phrenology? It was, once upon a time, the “science” of measuring someone’s skull to understand their intellectual capabilities.

This sounds totally idiotic but was a huge fucking deal in the mid-1800’s, and really didn’t stop getting some credit until much later. I know that because I happen to own the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which was written by the top scholars of the time but is now horribly and fascinatingly outdated.

For example, the entry for “Negro” is famously racist. Wikipedia has an excerpt: “Mentally the negro is inferior to the white… the arrest or even deterioration of mental development [after adolescence] is no doubt very largely due to the fact that after puberty sexual matters take the first place in the negro’s life and thoughts.”

But really that one line doesn’t tell the whole story. Here’s the whole thing, it’s long:

Pages 1 and 2

Pages 1 and 2

Pages 3 and 4

Pages 3 and 4

Pages 5 and 6

Pages 5 and 6

As you can see, they really go into it, with all sorts of data and speculative theories. But near the beginning there’s straight up racist phrenology:

From page 1

From page 1

To be clear: this was produced by a culture that was using pseudo-scientific nonsense to validate an underlying toxic and racist mindset. There was nothing more to it, but because people become awed and confused around scientific facts and figures, it seemed to work as a validating argument in 1911.

Anyhoo, I thought this was an interesting back drop to the NPR story I wanted to share with you (hat tip Yves Smith) entitled Recruiting Better Talent With Brain Games And Big Data. You can read the transcript as well, you don’t have to listen. Basically the idea is you play video games and the machine takes note of how you play and the choices you make and comes back to you with a personality profile. That profile will help you get a job or will exclude you from a job if the company believes in the results. There’s been no scientific tests to see if or how this stuff works, we’re supposed to just believe in it because, you know, data is objective and everything.

Here’s the thing. What we’ve got is a new kind of awful pseudo-science, which replaces measurements of skulls with big data. There’s no reason to think this stuff is any less biased or discriminatory either: given that there’s no actual science behind it, we might simply be replicating a selection method to get people who we like and who remind us of ourselves. To be sure, it might not be as deliberate as what we saw above, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

The NPR reporter who introduced this story did so by saying, “let’s start this hour with a look at an innovation in something that’s gone unchanged, it seems, forever.” That one sentence already gets it wrong, though. This is, unfortunately, not innovative. This is just the big data version of phrenology.

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