Thu 26 Jun 2008
In an easily recognizable, but nonetheless idiotic, ploy to sell magazines, Wired's editor-in-chief Chris Anderson has published a short article called The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete. In it he claims that the mere availability of data on a huge scale means that theories and models are unnecessary. As long as we have statistics that can pick trends, correlations out of the madness, we don't need the scientific method anymore.
I'll let this excellent rebuttal by John Timmer at Ars Technica do most of the work in explaining why Anderson's argument is so flawed it should never had been printed. (Ah hah! More evidence against Andrew Keen's argument for the return of the old-school editor! Anderson's crap would never have passed muster on Wikipedia.)
For me, the most important rebuttal is about falsification and repair. Without theories that we can test, how can we know we're wrong? What will being wrong look like? Without reasoned explanations for why things happen, how will we know what to do when things break? The reason that scientists are so wary of correlations is because they offer no explanatory power – they're misleading as often as not. If we act on them, completely ignorant of the underlying mechanism, we don't learn anything at all. Anderson's most staggeringly ignorant move is to suggest that theories and models are somehow unnecessary simply because they're often wrong. Wha? I guess the benefit of never having a model or a theory is that if you make no assumptions or predictions no one can ever disprove you.
I'd be willing to dismiss Anderson entirely if, presented differently, he wouldn't have otherwise tackled an interesting topic. As Timmer says, certainly the availability of massive data is changing the way we do science. But the end of theory? C'mon, Chris, that's ridiculous, and a transparent attempt to appeal to the data-heads that read Wired. This point of view is SO common, at least around San Francisco. I'm amazed that otherwise smart people would adopt such an ignorant, arrogant point of view. Fighting this kind of thinking is depressing. It reminds me of something Anthony Bourdain said about his most hated chef nemesis, Rachel Ray. (I noted this in a previous post.)
Complain all you want. It’s like railing against the pounding surf. She only grows stronger and more powerful. Her ear-shattering tones louder and louder. We KNOW she can’t cook… She’s a friendly, familiar face who appears regularly on our screens to tell us that “Even your dumb, lazy ass can cook this!” Wallowing in your own crapulence on your Cheeto-littered couch you watch her and think, “Hell…I could do that. I ain’t gonna…but I could–if I wanted! Now where’s my damn jug a Diet Pepsi?
A lazy, soulless, superficial, inexplicably popular idea. It's days are numbered, though. I predict that inside of 5 years, Google is going to hit the wall on its data-center driven problem solving. They'll call for more cowbell, find there's none to be had, and return to the land of the living where the rest of us live.