Analytics, Prior and Otherwise

« previous post | next post »

Analytics is all the rage. Thus Keith Pompey, "Sixers aide immerses Brown in analytics", Philadelphia Inquirer 4/7/2014

Brett Brown is inherently curious.  

The first-year 76ers coach was eager to learn as much as possible about the data that tell us where every player is during every possession of an NBA game. It's called analytics, and the Sixers are among the NBA franchises that are shifting toward basing major decisions on data and model-driven analysis.  

"There's always the thing that they call unintended consequences," said Brown, who was introduced to analytics this season. "That's where my curiosity combined with, yeah, you know, there's a bit of defiance in me that I don't believe it. Prove it. And what about this? What about that?  

"And if you can get through all those type of layers, I say, 'Wow.' And I feel like I've improved."  

So much so that the 53-year-old is fond of Lance Pearson, who deals with advanced analytics and statistical scouting for the Sixers. Pearson was hired away from Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, Ky., where he was an assistant coach and special assistant in analytics.  He has a Ph.D. in computational neuroscience from Boston University. Pearson also has bachelor's degrees in computer science, mathematics and philosophy from Kentucky.

Until a decade or two ago, the word analytics was limited for me to exactly one context, namely the title of Aristotle's Prior Analytics.

Now analytics seems to be everywhere. There's Google Analytics, which "shows you the full customer picture across ads and videos, websites and social tools, tablets and smartphones". Harvard Business Review is ready to tell you "Why Your Analytics Are Failing You", without any fear that you might not know what your analytics are. UMd just got a Gates Foundation grant "to better gather and use learning analytics". And so on, though tens of thousands of web sites, news articles, book chapters, and scholarly articles.

This is all consistent with the meaning that the Wikipedia entry suggests should be associated with Aristotle's use of analytics, namely "finding the reasoned facts". And it fits exactly sense 1.b. of the OED's (revised in 2010) entry:

1.a.  Chiefly Philos. The science or method of using analysis to examine something complex; spec. the branch of logic that deals with analysis, esp. with reference to the book of the same name by Aristotle.

1.b. The collation and analysis of data or statistics, esp. by computer, typically for financial or commercial purposes; the data that results from this; (also) software used for this purpose.

The OED's citations for sense 1.b go back to 1966 (though I don't think that I encountered this usage until the late 1990s):

1966   Econ. & Polit. Weekly 15 Oct. 377/1   A correct conclusion from the analytics of comparative statics.
1980   Amer. Banker (Nexis) 25 July,   Understanding the analytics, setting servicing standards, and selling the system to branch operating folks.
2001   Financial Times 27 Jan. 9/7 (advt.)    All the features active traders need, including news, charts, analytics and direct trading capabilities.
2009   A. Kaushik Web Analytics 2·0 xiii. 394   In the last few years I have implemented at least 25 analytics tools on my blog.

Looking for older uses in Google Books, I discovered something really interesting: Lucius Adelno Sherman, Analytics of Literature: A Manual for the Objective Study of English Prose and Poetry, 1893. (Also available from the Internet Archive.)

And apparently Willa Cather studied with Sherman in 1892 or 1893 at the University of Nebraska, so we can learn something about his Analytics from Bernice Slote's discussion in the introduction to The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather's First Principles and Critical Statements, 1893-1896  (pp. 18-19):

Willa's conflict with Professor L.A. Sherman was less dramatic but more extended, and it has enough larger significance in her  work to justify some detail. Minor skirmishes came between Sherman's book column in the News and Willa's in the Journal, as when Sherman called Trilby immoral and Willa rejoined with several eloquent defenses of both book and principle.  But chiefly she opposed his efforts to make the study of literature and language scientific, a purpose he stated and defended in his Analytics of Literature (1893). Sherman was not all bad, even for Willa; in the Analytics are many insights that obviously influenced her. But some attitudes seemed to her both ignorant and ruthless. Often his scientific method came down to mere word-counting: judging by published examples, he and his students had counted words of nearly a hundred thousand sentences in works of seventy authors from Spenser to Henry James. Half of Analytics is devoted to such analyses of sentence length, comparative predication, and ratios of force, with charts, diagrams, formulae, and equations. Willa wrote a number of satires on Sherman's analytics, recalled one of her friends, including some poems on the "counting" assignments. Though unsigned, the "count" poems in the Hesperian are easily recognizable. For example, on December 1, 1893, there was "He Took Analytics":

I am dying, Egypt, dying,
Ebbs the crimson life-tide fast;
And the dark Plutonian shadows
Gather on the evening blast;
Ah I counted, Queen, and counted,
And rows of figures massed
Till e'en my days are numbered,
And I'm counted out at last.

 Ms. Cather's skepticism notwithstanding, it's basically a positive trend that increasingly diverse segments of our society are coming to believe that "finding the reasoned facts" is a good thing to do.  And I was interested to discover L.A. Sherman, a digital humanist avant la lettre.



  1. A.D. said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 8:40 am

    Does anyone else have a problem with the noun data taking a plural verb? Isn't this kind of an anarchism. I'll admit, I do not work with data, but I have never heard the word datum used before.

  2. Rod Johnson said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 9:01 am


    Anyway the data question is an old and tired controversy that never leads anywhere good, and kind of a tangent from this post, which is about analytics, right?

    [(myl) There's also an old issue about whether mathematics is singular or plural, and then there's also economics, physics, phonetics, linguistics, statics, dynamics, etc.

    And the English language, overall, is surely as pure an example of anarchic governance as we can find in the modern industrialized world.]

  3. A.D. said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 10:29 am

    Ha! Syria on the mind?

  4. Dan Lufkin said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 10:53 am

    "Sweet Analytics! 'Tis thou hast ravished me."
    Christopher Marlowe, Dr. Faustus

  5. Coby Lubliner said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 10:57 am

    Is there any explanation of why so many nouns describing scientific or intellectual disciplines derived from Latin -ica became "-ics" in English? I think that mathematics was modeled on French mathématiques (plural because it covers several disciplines, e.g. arithmetic and geometry), and physics got that way to distinguish it from physic (i.e. medicine), while arithmetic, dialectic and logic remained s-less. But why did the former model influence later formations?

  6. James said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 12:12 pm

    Coby, could it just be that the derivation is Greek?
    ϕυσική (physics), ἠθική (ethics), ὀπτική (optics). (All fem. sing., I believe.)

    We don't say 'musics' or 'rhetorics', though, so there's some explaining left even if my speculation is right.

  7. D.O. said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 1:04 pm

    OED explains that physics is ultimately from

    ancient Greek τὰ ϕυσικά , lit. ‘natural things’, the collective title of Aristotle's physical treatises

    Also from OED sense 1.a.

    The scope of the term has varied from including the whole of the physical world (Locke also included God, angels, etc.) to being restricted to inorganic bodies, until finally being further restricted to sense 1b.

    Maybe physics just retained its flair of plurality through all the intervening transformations.

  8. cameron said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 1:32 pm

    In addition to the Prior Analytics Aristotle is also the author of a work with the traditional title Posterior Analytics

  9. Zubon said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 3:00 pm

    I suggest "anarchism" was meant to be "anachronism."

  10. tuncay said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 6:33 am

    I am not old enough to *remember* the times, but certainly analytics as a fancy word for complex analyses put together has been in use in the mathematical economics field since at least the 70s. E.g., there is a book called "The Analytics of Uncertainty and Information" whose draft exists from late 70s.

RSS feed for comments on this post