ad Silicon Tails: The End of Theory? I hope not!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The End of Theory? I hope not!

Another good and provocative article by Chris Anderson in Wired this month (long version in print magazine) - and a surprisingly well thought through commentary on Valleywag (what's up with that level of journalistic quality on Valleywag?).

A central quote from Anderson's article:

"This is a world where massive amounts of data and applied mathematics replace every other tool that might be brought to bear. Out with every theory of human behavior, from linguistics to sociology. Forget taxonomy, ontology, and psychology. Who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves."

Scary stuff in my mind. Massive computation can be, and is, extremely useful to scientific endeavours, but to throw the baby out with the bath water is just plain wrong - even dangerous. Why? Because unlike what Anderson seems to argue, data never speak for themselves; as a matter of fact the mere act of collecting data tends to change the nature of what we are observing. This has been convincingly proven in Physics (The Heisenberg uncertainty principle) - and resulted in new models in quantum theory, notably Niels Bohr's principle of complementarity. Consider the extent to which the observer effect is even larger in the social sciences. If we do not interpret data in a context of hypotheses, models and theories we risk not only abandoning the cumulative nature of science, but opening up for a much more "politizised" version of science ruled by - most likely - commercial and religious interests. It's the equivalent of claiming that the syllogism is a way to arrive at truth, when in fact syllogistic reasoning bears no connection to the truth value of the argument (only to the logical "mechanics" of the argument). That is powerful in itself, obviously but would we want to assign a positive truth value (or any truth value for that matter) to the assertion that "my mother is a stone" (as in the play "Erasmus Montanus" by Ludvig Holberg) based on the mechanics of the argument alone? Of course not.

The fact that models and theories often fall short of explaining empirical phenomena - whether in biology, physics or the social sciences - should not make us abandon the quest for understanding and explaining. It would bring out the dogmatists and the fanatics, and it's not like we don't have enough dogmatism and fanaticism already.