Friday, July 25, 2008

The End of the Scientific Method?

Wired magazine has an article entitled "The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete" by Chris Anderson. Everyone in the field of education ought to read it. His basic premise is that the sheer amount of data available now makes the old scientific method -- hypothesize, model, test -- rather quaint. He argues that there are no longer absolute certainties and that there are statistical and mathematical trends. Here's what he says about physics and biology:

But faced with massive data, this approach to science — hypothesize, model, test — is becoming obsolete. Consider physics: Newtonian models were crude approximations of the truth (wrong at the atomic level, but still useful). A hundred years ago, statistically based quantum mechanics offered a better picture — but quantum mechanics is yet another model, and as such it, too, is flawed, no doubt a caricature of a more complex underlying reality. The reason physics has drifted into theoretical speculation about n-dimensional grand unified models over the past few decades (the "beautiful story" phase of a discipline starved of data) is that we don't know how to run the experiments that would falsify the hypotheses — the energies are too high, the accelerators too expensive, and so on.

Now biology is heading in the same direction. 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.

In short, the more we learn about biology, the further we find ourselves from a model that can explain it.

I don't know that I fully buy into his argument, but I don't think I can discount it either. My uncertainty perhaps lies in a fear that we're all trending ourselves into oblivion, but I can also see how alleged post-scientific method age could be liberating. Fear of the unknown, I guess...

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