In short, it is important to remember that psychological weapons of mass persuasion do not need to be based on highly accurate models, nor do they require huge effects across the population in order to have the ability to undermine the democratic process. In addition, we are only seeing a fraction of the data, which means that scientific research may well be underestimating the influence of these tools. For example, most academic studies use self-reported survey experiments, which do not always accurately simulate the true social dynamics in which online news consumption takes place. Even when Facebook downplayed the importance of the echo chamber effect in their own Science study, the data was based on a tiny snapshot of users (i.e. those who declared their political ideology or about 4% of the total Facebook population). Furthermore, predictive analytics companies do not go through ethical review boards or run highly controlled studies using one or two messages at a time. Instead, they spend millions on testing thirty to forty thousand messages a day across many different audiences, fine-tuning their algorithms, refining their messages, and so on.
There are two sides of a coin. This is the other side for Big Data.
Feynman was speaking to the sense of wonder that science should evoke in all of us. Carl Sagan realized this too when he said that not only is science compatible with spirituality, but it’s a profound source of spirituality. To realize that the world is a multilayered, many-splendored thing, to realize that everything around us is connected through particles and forces, to realize that every time we take a breath or fly on a plane we are being held alive and aloft by the wonderful and weird principles of mechanics and electromagnetism and atomic physics, and to realize that these phenomena are actually real as opposed to the fictional revelations of religion, should be as much a spiritual experience as anything else in one’s life. In this sense, knowing about quantum mechanics or molecular biology is no different from listening to the Goldberg Variations or gazing up at the Sistine Chapel. But this spiritual experience can come only when we let our imaginations run free, constraining them in the straitjacket of skepticism only after they have furiously streaked across the sky of wonder. The first woman, when she asked what the stars were made of, did not ask for a p value.