Feature

How quants have led us astray

Big data is a useful tool, but it shouldn’t rule.

Felix Salmon

Wired.com

It’s time we quit “living by numbers alone,” said Felix Salmon. Over the past three decades, many fields and institutions have witnessed “the rise of the quants—that is, the ascent to power of people whose native tongue is numbers and algorithms and systems rather than personal relationships or human intuition.” These data geniuses often “find numerical patterns or invent ingenious algorithms that increase profits or solve problems,” but we’re learning that there’s a downside to our overreliance on data. Just look at the financial world, “where the rise of quantification could concentrate decision-making—and moneymaking—within a relatively small group of people at a bank’s headquarters.” When shortsighted and poorly regulated bankers put quants in the driver’s seat, they led us to “catastrophe in 2008.” We’re much better off “marrying quantitative insights with old-fashioned subjective experience.” The 2004 Boston Red Sox, for example, combined stats with traditional scouting to deliver the team’s “first World Series title in 86 years.” Big data is a useful tool, but it shouldn’t rule. “As long as the humans are in control, and understand what it is they’re controlling, we’re fine. It’s when they become slaves to the numbers that trouble breaks out.”

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