Tuesday, June 24, 2008

"What Can Science Learn from Google?"

Now that is a terrifying question. Chris Anderson, The author of a particularly silly story titled "The End of Theory" in Wired wonders if the standard scientific method is outdated. He writes:

The models we were taught in school about "dominant" and "recessive" genes steering a strictly Mendelian process have turned out to be an even greater simplification of reality than Newton's laws. The discovery of gene-protein interactions and other aspects of epigenetics has challenged the view of DNA as destiny and even introduced evidence that environment can influence inheritable traits, something once considered a genetic impossibility.


The new availability of huge amounts of data, along with the statistical tools to crunch these numbers, offers a whole new way of understanding the world. Correlation supersedes causation, and science can advance even without coherent models, unified theories, or really any mechanistic explanation at all.

Okkkkaaaayyyyyy..... First, I am not sure where he learned his biology. I suspect he has vastly oversimplified what ever notion he was trying to convey in the first quote. Environment always influences heritable traits. That is what natural selection is. You know, the idea Darwin and Wallace came up with 150 years ago. Second, without any coherent models, there is no science. There is only "data deluge." Mr. Anderson's suggestion that we do away with models invokes nothing more than inductive science. That is exactly counter to the example that Neil Shubin gives us about the Tiktaalik discovery: you take the information you have and construct a model that allows for greater discovery. In the 1930s, Louis Leakey went to Africa to find hominid ancestors because that is where the best evidence led him. Guess what he found?

1 comment:

  1. I think it's worse that that. Anderson's model-free "science" is essentially the cosmic oddity shop model: science is a collection of unrelated factoids stacked on shelves in no particular order. Come to think of it, that's not a bad characterization of much science education, to the disadvantage of students.