We can draw a distinction here between Big Data—the stuff of numbers that thrives on correlations—and Big Narrative—a story-driven, anthropological approach that seeks to explain why things are the way they are. Big Data is cheap where Big Narrative is expensive. Big Data is clean where Big Narrative is messy. Big Data is actionable where Big Narrative is paralyzing.

The promise of Big Data is that it allows us to avoid the pitfalls of Big Narrative. But this is also its greatest cost. With an extremely emotional issue such as terrorism, it’s easy to believe that Big Data can do wonders. But once we move to more pedestrian issues, it becomes obvious that the supertool it’s made out to be is a rather feeble instrument that tackles problems quite unimaginatively and unambitiously. Worse, it prevents us from having many important public debates.

As Band-Aids go, Big Data is excellent. But Band-Aids are useless when the patient needs surgery. In that case, trying to use a Band-Aid may result in amputation. This, at least, is the hunch I drew from Big Data.