chomsky on big data

12 July 2013. Rackham Auditorium, University of Michigan.

(minute 52)

Listener:
— Could you comment on the growing trend in the sciences, particularly linguistics, towards funding and encouraging big data studies and, and how we as students crippled by that, and need to find jobs, can resist that, but also find work.

Noam Chomsky:
— Well the big data… You know it’s a very tempting idea, you could look at technological journals, they have issues devoted to big data, and it’s easy to collect a lot of data these days. Like probably everything that’s going on here is going right to a data bank in Utah, where President Obama can read it if he wants (Audience laughs out loud). And that’s… And everything you send on email, and everywhere else… So a lot of ways of collecting big data. Also working with big data’s pretty easy. Doesn’t take a lot of thought, and you maybe get a statistician to help you, but, then… It just… You get a lot of stuff without much effort, without much thought, and that’s tempting, the thinking is hard, having ideas is hard, they often don’t work, you know, you got to pursue them and so on. So why not do something easy, and so there’s an ideology behind it, it can’t be done in the… In serious areas, like, you… You can’t do it in… Uhm… Sometimes a lot of data can help for something, if you have a… You have some… Some idea that you want to pursue, you can often test it by looking at data, but you have to know what you are looking for, you know, otherwise, it’s like… Suppose somebody says “I want to become a biologist”, okay, and you tell him “It’s easy, just go to the Harvard Biology Department, they’ve got a big library, it’s all there, okay, just become a biologist.” (Audience laughs) Yeah, that’s big data. You can’t do anything unless you know what you’re looking for, and for what you’re looking for you have to have some understanding, you have to have a framework and so on. But the move towards it… You can see the temptation, and in fact if you’re a grad student or a young researcher, and you want to get an NSF grant, that’s already doomed. Put in a grant… In fact it’s very hard to get a grant these days unless you put in something completely irrelevant (Audience laughs). Like “I’m going to do a big study of collecting data” or “I’m going to use for the linguistics FMRRI”, not for anything, any purpose, but just so that I can buy a big machine and big machines are good, and so on. These are some of the pathologies of research and funding. It… Got to get used to it.

Listener:
— So i’m just doomed to that (She laughs to herself, stops.) (Audience laughs out loud.)

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