Chris Anderson: Google Has Eliminated the Scientific Method

Posted on July 8, 2008
Filed Under Culture & Technology |

According to Chris Anderson, “the future of business is selling less of more” (). And “every industry that becomes digital eventually becomes free” ().

In my opinion, Anderson is a master of exaggeration. He takes observations about business and technology that alone are usually marginally interesting and exaggerates them into grandiose theses that serve as the foundations for appealing, marketable books.

While I certainly expected Anderson to continue finding new subjects to exaggerate about, I didn’t quite expect his latest exaggerration: “the data deluge makes the scientific method obsolete.”

The scientific method, of course, is the group of techniques by which inquiring minds seek to understand the world through observation, measurement and experimentation. When the scientific method is applied to any phenomenon, the goal of the process is to understand and explain the workings of that phenomenon.

According to Anderson, we need no longer need to understand and explain the phenomena we observe:

Scientists are trained to recognize that correlation is not causation, that no conclusions should be drawn simply on the basis of correlation between X and Y (it could just be a coincidence). Instead, you must understand the underlying mechanisms that connect the two. Once you have a model, you can connect the data sets with confidence. Data without a model is just noise.

But faced with massive data, this approach to science — hypothesize, model, test — is becoming obsolete.

There is now a better way. 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.

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.

Anderson points to the shortcomings of hypothetical models that have been developed for physics and genetics and notes that sometimes, testing scientific hypotheses is outright impossible.

He uses J. Craig Venter and his use of high-speed sequencers and supercomputers to sequence the DNA of “entire ecosystems” as an example of a world in which more can be accomplished by “throw[ing] the numbers into the biggest computing clusters the world has ever seen and let[ting] statistical algorithms find patterns where science cannot.”

Anderson notes that Venter has discovered thousands of new species of bacteria and other lifeforms and even though he “can tell you almost nothing about the species he found,” argues that “Venter has advanced biology more than anyone else of his generation.”

While Anderson’s notions are interesting to a certain extent, it takes little critical thinking to recognize that they are flawed and that Anderson fails to grasp the overriding goal of science: to understand the world around us.

Knowing that there is a correlation between A and B will always have far less value than knowing if and why A causes B. Data and data patterns in the absence of true analysis and understanding are worthless.

The scientists who have changed the world (the Newtons, Darwins, Einsteins and countless others) changed the world because they applied the scientific method.

While many of the hypotheses and theoretical models great scientists put forth have later been found to be imperfect and requiring revision or outright dismissal, that does not distract from the fact that it was their application of the scientific method that resulted in the ideas that have changed the world.

Fortunately, Anderson appears to have pushed his exaggerative tendencies too far this time and most of the comments on his article question rightfully question his thinking.

One commenter notes that Anderson seems to confuse science and statistics. Another correctly points out that “data is certainly NOT knowledge” and even argues that the ability to work with massive amounts of data actually means we should be modeling more:

…the increase in the data and the accessibility of the data is quite on the contrary a clarion call to propose new processes, to account for all the interdependencies, to tease out all the interactions, to identify the dynamics, to pounce and tear away and suck out of the bloated google-sack of data whatever actual knowledge about the natural world might lie therein, in pregnant waiting.

In short, to model like never before.

In reading Anderson’s article, I couldn’t help but note a “correlation” between his ideas and some of the topics discussed in Nick Carr’s recent article in The Atlantic, “Is Google Making us Stupid?”

In it, Carr points out Tufts University developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf’s observation that the internet has in many ways made us “mere decoders of information.”

In essence, Anderson embraces a world where analysis and critical thinking are optional components of science. He instead espouses a version of “science” in which the data itself and the mere correlations between sets of data are all that matter.

in an post addressing Carr’s article:

In my opinion, a world in which individuals have been conditioned to consume vast amounts of information but essentially “think” about none of it is not one that we should ignorantly embrace because the world this is creating is quite ugly.

Anderson clearly likes this world and ends his article with a call to action: “It’s time to ask: What can science learn from Google?”

I, however, ask: “What can we learn from individuals like Chris Anderson?”

A few things:

In my opinion, Anderson’s latest article casts doubt on anything he has ever written and will ever write. While this may seem an extreme position to take, given Anderson’s track record and the fact that his thinking here is so flawed and ill-informed as to be laughable, I would argue that his credibility has diminished to marginal levels.

After all, if he truly believes that the scientifc method is obsolete, he’s clearly ignorant. And if he doesn’t but wrote that it is anyway to sell copies of Wired, he’s clearly lacking intellectual integrity.

Do not think, however, that any of this will stop his latest “theory” from eventually being turned into a book.

Frankly, I think it’s time Anderson write “Stupid! Why the Future of Intelligence is Thinking Less.” In this case, there may not be a better author.

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One Response to “Chris Anderson: Google Has Eliminated the Scientific Method”

  1. Phil on July 10th, 2008 1:01 pm

    “…critical thinking are optional components of science.” That says it all right there.

    Although I think Anderson’s Long Tail can be a useful intuition pump, that’s just what it is: a rough approximation for a concept. He’s on to something I think, but to think it speaks absolute truth is a fallacy. Intuition pumps are important to visualize concepts, but they can also lead to bad thinking. Daniel Dennett is a good reference point here.

    I agree with you here: science is science, a simple algorithm to filter out mental contaminants. Unfortunately, there are a lot of those floating about, so I’m glad we still have science. Science rescues us from superstition.

    Love the drama.

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