Does science need theories anymore?

I just read a somewhat flawed paper at the Edge entitled: The end of theory, written by Chris Anderson.

In short, the paper argues that we will no longer need theories in science, because we have Google. We can now use computers to look at massive amounts of data, and use them to detect patterns for us. From this, Anderson draws the slightly irrational conclusion that we need no theories.

Says Anderson:

Petabytes allow us to say: "Correlation is enough." We can stop looking for models. We can analyze the data without hypotheses about what it might show. We can throw the numbers into the biggest computing clusters the world has ever seen and let statistical algorithms find patterns where science cannot …

There’s no reason to cling to our old ways. It’s time to ask: What can science learn from Google?

Anderson’s somewhat fallacious observation is that we don’t need scientific theories or models since Google will give us all our answers anyway. However, what Anderson is talking about is nothing new. He is merely describing a first step in a long-established scientific method called induction, or "data-to-explanation". In its modern form it has been around since at least Francis Bacon (late 16th century), sometimes referred to as the father of scientific induction.

Amputating the inductive method by removing the explanation part (the model, theory) is not the way to go, as then we would effectively be entering a stage of scientific stagnation. It would be a job half-done (to some degree even pointless) for a scientific endeavour to collect data and establish patterns and not try to explain why the patterns are there. The explanation part is essential if we want to understand *why* the patterns exist, and for that we need models. The models need not be established before-hand, of course (even though analysing data without some prior theory is virtually impossible). Finding patterns in data can be, and often is, a perfectly valid impetus for developing (new) explanatory models.

What Google, and the like, does is offer us new methods in handling much larger amounts of data than what has been possible before. With Google, we can find new, previously undetected patterns, some of which our existing theories cannot predict. These, in turn, will create a need for new explanations and new theories. Hence it is more likely that Google will foster even more theories and models, not less.

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3 Comments

  1. ProkeDerb said,

    Sunday, August 3, 2008 at 2:11

    Brilliant!

  2. T.Y. said,

    Tuesday, September 9, 2008 at 20:48

    Theories are Sweet and Useful

    You have presented a simple, but reasonable argument as to why theories are significant. In thinking about why we see particular phenomena occur repeatedly, it is not enough to simply collect the data and leave it at that, human beings always have the need to understand phenomena, and thus the proliferation of ways (theories) to understand them. A theory is simply a way, some call it a model, others call it an explanation of observed phenomena, and so on. Theories come and go. Some of them are successful, and others fail over time. However, what is important is not to dismiss theories without understanding their impact and implication for our lived experiences.

    I suppose that the proponent of the “end of theories” argues thus because of a popular complacent consumerist stance that seeks no reason for the existence of anything; commodities, reality, violence, social apathy, conflict, earthquakes, and do on. The existence of sweatshops, or child labor, and other brutal behavior do not need any explanation. They just are, and Google has expiated us from theories that seek to make sense of these things. It cannot be that this individual believes in the computing power of Google so much that a misunderstanding of the actual value of theory in research is dismissed. The most probable excuse to this behavior is probably in this person’s not understanding what theory does or its actual meaning.

    I agree that Google enhances our ability to collect and collate research material more quickly. In conditions where collecting data would have been tedious, Google makes the process of research more friendly, creative, and enjoyable. Certainly this would force many people to start looking at social or physical phenomena in new ways (theories). I would image that people would continue on the theory trail until humanity is no more.

  3. jfmaho said,

    Wednesday, September 10, 2008 at 4:30

    I think you’re spot on about consumerism. I think it’s partly also about current society demanding answers more and more quickly. For many people, there’s simply not enough time to wait for explanations.

    From a business-oriented perspective, you don’t need to explain, say, why people who buy history books are also more likely than others to buy documentary DVDs. (I have no idea if that correlation’s actually true.) As long as you know the correlation exists, you can use it to target your business enterprises.

    Still, for others, who do seek explanations, Google and the like offer great new opportunities.


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