The end of scientific method?

A few weeks ago, Chris Anderson, editor of Wired and author of The Long Tail, predicted the end of scientific method (“hypotheses-model-test”). He argued that the combination of data analysis and of the advent the petabyte age, where it is possible to store and analyze an unimaginable quantity of data, always false models will be replaced with data crunching. “With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves,” he confidently asserted.

While acknowledging that correlation was -hitherto- not causation, he nevertheless claimed, on the basis of the gene sequencing experience, that:

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 comments below the article and elsewhere on the web (here in French, there in English for instance) are much more interesting than the post in itself, whose main interest is to warn about the drifting of overconfidence in data analysis. The discussions on the problem of inductivism, the true meaning of correlation, the context and applications of models etc. are pretty interesting, especially when they resurrect the Friedman idea that prediction is what matters or display overtones of the Koopmans-Vining debate.

Chris Anderson was trained in Physics, his biography says. I wonder whether such article could have been written by an economist. If only because the economist’s approach to data.

“Sixty years ago, digital computers made information readable. Twenty years ago, the Internet made it reachable. Ten years ago, the first search engine crawlers made it a single database. Now Google and like-minded companies are sifting through the most measured age in history, treating this massive corpus as a laboratory of the human condition. They are the children of the Petabyte Age,”

Anderson begins with. But it seems to me that economists are not even done with the first step, “ma[ke] information readable.” The history of econometrics can be read as a long and difficult quest to cope with missing data, outliers, spurious correlation, endogeneity etc. And the today economic articles I most admire are those where shrewd proxies for missing data sets are designed, such as the –controversial- use of streams as a proxy for the number of school districts to test the benefits of public school choices, or the use of nineteenth century Prussian census data to test the Weberian relation between Protestantism and prosperity (thanks Mathieu).

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One thought on “The end of scientific method?

  1. The huge statistical studies about the relative impact of Protestantism on education vs. the impact on its followers’ work ethic indicates the fallacy of such calculations. They proceed from assumptions that are not themselves established. And concentrating on counties within Prussia for example, ignores the more obvious and grander evidence available. After Luther’s influence took hold, from 1550 on, industrial-scientific progress was rapid in the northern European nations that had “gone Protestant.” The southern nations of Europe–Spain Italy and to a lesser extent, France, all languished in the rear after 1600. Northern “free” Holland outpaced Catholic “south” Holland–Belgium. The Presbyterians “attitude” in Scotland jump-started a backward and sleepy nation into an economic and scientific powerhouse. But, it was neither education per se nor improved literacy, nor the work ethic that was the root cause of these huge differences. Those were merely symptoms, or the result, of “the empowerment of the common people” that the Protestant Revolution accomplished. Luther declared that ordinary people did not need priests to transmit the Gospel to them–that anyone could read the Bible and follow their religious beliefs without a clerisy. And the Protestant sects that followed Luther emphasized this new important self-reliant role for all men and women. Gone were the authoritarian strictures and pomp of the Catho;ic priests. It was a democritization of faith, raising the individual to a new and higher and more noble status. This empowerment went along with the advances in science that had established the separation of church and state, of science and religion, that had started 400 years earlier with Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon in the new 12th century universities of western europe. Finally all men and women were encouraged in the Protestant lands to explore the rational physical world, to apply the scientific method to every phase of their working lives, while still keeping separate, and gaining sustenance from, the comforts of Faith. Basically Luther “rocked the boat,” defrocked the aristocratic establishment, and brought a fresh air of independence, free thinking, and pride in individual action–the free will concept of Christianity that had been somewhat dormant prior to Luther’s startling proclamations. Now it is well known that the prime mover in history had always been the common people of a society, if they were allowed freedom of action and thought. Rarely had they had such freedom, except in a few illustrious places like Phoenicia, Greece, Florence, Venice, and the Hanseatic cities. But now, under the spirit of Protestantism and its revolt against oppressive leaders–both lay and religious–the people of northern Europe were energized and allowed to work their genius. The schools, printing presses, literacy, scientific discoveries, new financial and corporate institutions, technological innovations, and the demand for political reforms–all these new concepts that led to the Industrial Revolution–were not the cause of progress. They were simply the techniques employed by the new free ordinary people throughout northern Europe to improve their quality of life. The “Radzewicz Rule” underscores this lesson of history (you can google it) and established that it is the common men and women, if allowed basic security of life and property, and granted a respite from stifling political and spiritual oppression, that create prosperity. Northern Protestant Europe provided that nourishing environment. The rest of the world’s people were left behind even more than southern Europe because the negative and passive and introspective influence of Islam, Buddhism, and Confucionism were even more restrictive to individual human action than the catholic Church had ever been. Those people in such authoritarian locales never had a chance–simply because they lacked the empowerment that came from Luther’s Revolt.

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