Science and engineering approaches

Here is another take on the Wired piece of Chris Anderson — this time around, by Seth Roberts:

Varangy wonders what I think about this editorial by Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired. Anderson says “faced with massive data, this approach to science — hypothesize, model, test — is becoming obsolete.” Anderson confuses statistical models with scientific ones. As far as the content goes, I’m completely unconvinced. Anderson gives no examples of this approach to science being replaced by something else.

For me, the larger lesson of the editorial is how different science is from engineering. Wired is mainly about engineering. I’m pretty sure Anderson has some grasp of the subject. Yet this editorial, which reads like something a humanities professor would write, shows that his understanding doesn’t extend to science. It reminds me why I didn’t want to be a doctor. (Which is like being an engineer.) It seemed to me that a doctor’s world is too constrained: You deal with similar problems over and over. I wanted more uncertainty, a bigger canvas. That larger canvas came along when I tried to figure out why I was waking up too early. Rather than being like engineering (applying what we already know), this was true science: I had no idea what the answer was. There was a very wide range of possibilities. Science and engineering are two ends of a dimension of problem-solving. The more you have an idea what the answer will be, the more it is like engineering. The wider the range of possible answers, the more it is like science. Making a living requires a steady income: much more compatible with engineering than science. I like to think my self-experimentation has a kind of wild flavor which is the flavor of “raw” science, whereas the science most people are familiar with is “pasteurized” science — science tamed, made more certain, more ritualistic, so as to make it more compatible with making a living. Sequencing genes, for example, is pasteurized science. Taking an MRI of the brain while subjects do this or that task is pasteurized science. Pasteurized science is full of rituals and overstatements (e.g., “correlation does not equal causation”, “the plural of anecdote is not data”) that reduce unpleasant uncertainty, just as pasteurization does. Pasteurized science is more confusable with engineering.

There’s one way in which Anderson is right about the effects of more data. It has nothing to do with the difference between petrabytes and gigabytes (which is what Anderson emphasizes), but it is something that having a lot more data enables: Making pictures. When you can make a picture with your data, it becomes a lot easier to see interesting patterns in it.

By the way, is Seth correct about being a doctor? I do not think so; having read Atul Gawande and Oliver Sacks, I do see that most of the problems that they face and their approach to them is more science-y than engineering.

By the same token, even though engineering might be applying what we already know, in real world, there is no such clear distinction; and, even in cases where there is, the problems that one comes across are so varied, we do not know enough to start applying — and, in any case, innovation is all about applying some ideas which others have not even thought of as relevant for the problems in hand.

In other words, while I agree with Seth that Anderson’s piece reads rather naive about the scientific methodology, I am not sure if the naivette can be attributed to his training as an engineer.

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