Are we witnessing the dawn of post-theory science?

January 24, 2022

Tom Griffiths

The insights of NOMIS researcher Tom Griffiths and colleagues have been featured in an article in The Guardian that explores the changing approach to knowledge acquisition. Griffiths is leading The Computer Science of Human Decisions project, which is investigating decision-making from a multidisciplinary perspective, integrating computer science with psychology to develop high-precision models of decision-making. Mass-scale data collection and machine learning methods create a unique opportunity to study the human mind in a new way.

Does the advent of machine learning mean the classic methodology of hypothesise, predict and test has had its day?

by Laura Spinney

Isaac Newton apocryphally discovered his second law – the one about gravity – after an apple fell on his head. Much experimentation and data analysis later, he realised there was a fundamental relationship between force, mass and acceleration. He formulated a theory to describe that relationship – one that could be expressed as an equation, F=ma – and used it to predict the behaviour of objects other than apples. His predictions turned out to be right (if not always precise enough for those who came later).

Contrast how science is increasingly done today. Facebook’s machine learning tools predict your preferences better than any psychologist. AlphaFold, a program built by DeepMind, has produced the most accurate predictions yet of protein structures based on the amino acids they contain. Both are completely silent on why they work: why you prefer this or that information; why this sequence generates that structure.

You can’t lift a curtain and peer into the mechanism. They offer up no explanation, no set of rules for converting this into that – no theory, in a word. They just work and do so well. We witness the social effects of Facebook’s predictions daily. AlphaFold has yet to make its impact felt, but many are convinced it will change medicine.

Somewhere between Newton and Mark Zuckerberg, theory took a back seat. In 2008, Chris Anderson, the then editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, predicted its demise. So much data had accumulated, he argued, and computers were already so much better than us at finding relationships within it, that our theories were being exposed for what they were – oversimplifications of reality. Soon, the old scientific method – hypothesise, predict, test – would be relegated to the dustbin of history. We’d stop looking for the causes of things and be satisfied with correlations.

Read the full Guardian article: Are we witnessing the dawn of post-theory science?