The internet has caused trouble in science classrooms: with Google and Wikipedia it's difficult to know if somebody understands the material or just how to copy and paste. Wired editor Chris Anderson has raised the stakes by claiming that the modern wealth of data renders the entire scientific method obsolete. Like finding your wife rubbing butter onto a naked clown shaving your dog, there's just so much wrong with that it's hard to know where to begin.
Luckily your friends at The Daily Galaxy are expert b.s. detectors, and this attempt at beyond-the-curve controversy falls at the very first law of rubbish identification: "Does it start by saying that a widely held belief is wrong?" Oh yes it does, with Mr Anderson talking about the scientific maxim "Correlation is not causation" the same way you'd talk about how doctors used to put leeches on people.
This combines with his second error: Belief that the Internet is the entire world. This is an easy mistake for somebody like a Wired editor to make, but the fact remains that if you walked down a street shouting "LOLCAT" most people wouldn't know what the hell you were talking about. This is important. In fact, a species where everybody knows about LOLCATS is one whose viability needs severe re-evaluation.
The correlation and computer errors combine in his central thesis: that Google don't care about why or how a site works - if the statistics say it's the one then that's good enough for them. The unspoken subtext is that if it's good enough for Google, the Gods of Light and the Truth and the Way, it should be good enough for everything.
Of course it isn't. Google are good with the statistics of huge volumes of data because that's their whole entire job. Fish are really good at swimming because they live in the water - that doesn't mean a heart surgeon should shove his face into on open chest cavity and try to locomote forward by wiggling his body and gills.
Noticing a correlation between factors is the START of science, not the end. When you see that two things affect each other and ask "Why?", you're a scientist. When you just record a million trials you're an accountant. When you say "It happens because that's the way things are" you're either a mother answering a five-year-old's fortieth question in a row, or uninterested, or possibly religious.
We've taken the liberty of reconstructing Isaac Newton's scientific achievements via the Anderson Method:
Newton: Wow, that apple fell. I will now drop a million other things and see if they all fall.
[Later]Yes, they all fall! Objects fall.
Viewer: So, how can we use that conclusion to progress engineering, technology or science?
Newton: >Shrugs< I 'unno. Things fall though. Maybe you could try just shoving millions of things together and seeing what happens?
Viewer: Thanks. By that strategy we should work out how to make a car by the year three billion.
It's only possible to advance when you understand the whys behind the what happened - how can you get to the moon armed only with the knowledge that things don't go up? Just observing patterns and saying you're done is what came BEFORE science.
International computing efforts like CancerBusters do "just keep trying things" to see what will work as Anderson describes, but the kinds of things they try and the things they're trying to do were all specified by rigorous scientific method. Claiming petabytes of data and globally distributed computing will end the scientific method is like claiming power tools ended carpentry.
Posted by Luke McKinney.
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