Will Google Kill Science?

Not an obvi­ous con­clu­sion, I’ll agree. How­ev­er, Chris Ander­son, edi­tor of Wired, presents the argu­ment like this: as all sorts of data accu­mu­late into a vast ocean of petabytes, our abil­i­ty to syn­the­size it all into ele­gant the­o­ries and laws will dis­ap­pear. The sto­ry is the cov­er of this mon­th’s issue of Wired but I came across it in a newslet­ter from The Edge, a group of thinkers try­ing to pro­mote a “third cul­ture” of online intel­lec­tu­al thought.

Ander­son­’s argu­ment isn’t real­ly that the sci­en­tif­ic method will dis­ap­pear, but rather that cor­re­la­tion will become as good as it gets in terms of ana­lyz­ing real-world data. Every­thing will be too messy, noisy and chang­ing too quick­ly for prop­er hypothe­ses and the­o­rems. As Ander­son puts it, it will be “the end of the­o­ry.”

The nice thing about read­ing this on Edge is that the newslet­ter comes with sev­er­al crit­i­cal respons­es includ­ed from “The Real­i­ty Club,” which includes thinkers like George Dyson, Kevin Kel­ly and Stu­art Brand. But I say that as the con­sumers and pro­duc­ers of most of these mass­es of data, the vote should lie with you, read­er: does Google’s brute force approach to data hord­ing spell the end sci­en­tif­ic ele­gance?

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  • Pete says:

    Chris Ander­son is wrong about the end of mod­els. Mod­els pre­dict and extend. Even giv­en com­plete his­tor­i­cal and cur­rent data, there is noth­ing pre­dic­tive about it. In sci­ence as in finance, past per­for­mance is no guar­an­tee of future results, and just as a crowd behaves dif­fer­ent­ly from a group of indi­vid­u­als, two sub-crit­i­cal lumps of ura­ni­um behave dif­fer­ent­ly sep­a­rate­ly than they do joined togeth­er. Even if you take com­plete infor­ma­tion about what hap­pened yes­ter­day and today and try to extrap­o­late tomor­row, you are using a mod­el: you are assum­ing that tomor­row will look some­thing like yes­ter­day and today.

    Just as a recent Har­vard study showed Chris Ander­son was wrong about the long tail, he is wrong about cor­re­la­tion and mod­els. How­ev­er, pop­u­lar cul­ture will increas­ing­ly democ­ra­tize knowl­edge — the more peo­ple believe some­thing, the more rel­e­vant that belief will be. Even if it is wrong. This is why Barack Oba­ma is a cryp­to-Mus­lim rad­i­cal Black Chris­t­ian.

  • Ed Finn says:


    I agree with you that Ander­son is wrong and the era of mod­els is cer­tain­ly not over (just begin­ning, actu­al­ly). The point you make about Oba­ma is real­ly in Ander­son­’s favor: with so much infor­ma­tion out there, many peo­ple have giv­en up hope of reli­able, objec­tive truths and just put faith in facts the Google way–based on the num­ber of times peo­ple repeat them. Maybe that’s always how we did it, and there are just more voic­es out there now.

    Actu­al­ly, I think your com­ment touch­es on a sep­a­rate prob­lem. Sci­ence will do fine, and the mass­es of data will be ana­lyzed and under­stood by an ever-more sophis­ti­cat­ed appa­ra­tus of sta­tis­ti­cal tools and algo­rithms. The trou­ble is, the math nec­es­sary to cope with this brave new world is not being taught to enough of the peo­ple who need to under­stand it. I can’t tell you how many times as a jour­nal­ist I saw bla­tant mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions or mis­un­der­stand­ings of cor­re­la­tion and causal­i­ty. As the data and the sci­ence get more com­pli­cat­ed, the Aver­age Joe and even the Aver­age Joe Jour­nal­ist is falling behind.

    Thanks for your input!

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