Social Media Urges On a New Statistics

The world’s twitter and Facebook output — along with its googling and cell phone geo data — is about to be stirred, strewn out on a researcher’s desk, and examined like a sacrificed animal’s entrails during the heyday of ancient Greece.

It seems that social media has done wonders for the acceptance of an old ritual of the occult — divination. Online output, as part of “big data,” is about to be put through a major statistical grinder by scientists claiming a humanistic bent in an attempt to derive “sociological laws of human behavior,” as John Markoff of the New York Times so eloquently put it, to “predict political crises, revolutions and other forms of social and economic instability,” much the same way that natural scientists foretell the weather and try to do likewise with earthquakes.

Next year, a division of the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), is funding a three-year study on “big data” involving 21 countries in Latin America. The tools employed by these scientists will likely resemble those being developed by Revolution Analytics, Norman Nie’s company of new-wave analytical tools for “data sets with trillions of entries.” Perhaps the time for a new Delphic oracle has arrived.

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