CoolData blog

8 May 2012

Emerson’s big data

Filed under: Model building, Off on a tangent — Tags: — kevinmacdonell @ 11:35 am

One day in late March I got on a plane from Toronto (where I attended Annual Fund benchmarking meetings hosted by Target Analytics) to Las Vegas (for the Sungard Higher Education Summit), and picked up the Toronto Globe & Mail. I scanned a section that offered some ephemera, including the startling news that my fellow countryman William Shatner had turned 81. Once I got over that shock, I read the Globe’s “Thought du jour,” a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Because I’m an admirer of Emerson, and because I figured I could appropriate his quote for my own selfish purposes, I scribbled it down:

“The world can never be learned by learning all its details.”

Emerson did not live in the age of big data. But in a way, the world he experienced — the world we all experience through our senses — IS big data. We don’t perceive our surroundings directly, but only through our brain’s interpretations of sense impressions. We navigate the world via mental models of our own creation. These models leave out nearly everything. They are not reality, no more than a map of a city is faithful to the reality of the city, or than our memory of an event is faithful to the details of the event (which would overwhelm us every time it came to mind).

In our work with data, we measure things (or their proxies) in order to get a handle on them and in order to gain insight. We lose most of the detail in the process, but we need to in order to learn something. We build models based on general patterns. So as George E.P. Box said: All models are wrong, but some are useful.



  1. I could not agree more. We build models to find structure and meaning in amongst the mass of data points. It worries me that, as more data becomes available, we move to more and more sophisticated “counting”. Yes we build models to measure, but we also build models to help our organisations learn about how our businesses work. We need a structure to hang all the data points on so that we can say…yes that bit of new data fits, or…hang on, that doesn’t…is it interesting or just wrong? And that means sometimes building models that have a worse fit but that hold true over time and predict more sensibly. The Box quote is a favourite of mine and while we are talking of quotes, remember Keynes said “It’s better to be roughly right than precisely wrong”. Hopefully Emerson would have approved…

    Comment by Tom Lloyd (@metametricsltd) — 8 May 2012 @ 12:00 pm

  2. Awesome – thanks for this one Kevin. I went to a Target Analytics/Donorcentric benchmarking session recently. It’s a pretty awesome gathering. I love this quote too. I like hearing you a little on the metaphysical side of things 😉
    – Anthony Cernera

    Comment by moe219 — 8 May 2012 @ 12:14 pm

  3. I tend to look for action steps over the ultimate answer to anything. I like the quote because it does make sure that we know that we can’t be omiscient. And then I have to wonder what it’s trying to say to those scientists who are trying to write the whole DNA book?

    Comment by Marianne Pelletier — 8 May 2012 @ 2:37 pm

  4. I wonder if Emerson would have liked Steven Wright’s ( stand up comedian) profound quote.. ” You can’t have everything, where would you put it”. thanks Kevin, this was one of your best.

    Comment by Mary Glenn — 9 May 2012 @ 1:23 pm

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