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e-Research and the End of Theory

Date & Time:
16:00:00 - 17:30:00,
Wednesday 10 June, 2009


What are the implications of the emergence of massive searchable amounts of data for scientific and scholarly research? This question was brought up in a provocative way in a recent article by Chris Anderson, editor of the cyberhip journal Wired. In an article entitled ‘The End of Theory’, Anderson claims that scientists need no longer rely on hypothesis or experimentation. Increasingly, we will all be children of the ‘The Petabyte age’. This age is different because more is different.

According to Anderson, ‘at the petabyte scale, information is not a matter of simple three- and four-dimensional taxonomy and order but of dimensionally agnostic statistics’. This calls for ‘an entirely different approach’, which no longer aims for a visualization of the data in its entirety. Rather than wanting to understand the data, we first need to approach them mathematically, and only establish a context for them later.

In short, this means that we are no longer in need for theory in the traditional sense of the word. In the words of Anderson: ‘Out with every theory of human behavior, from linguistics to sociology. Forget taxonomy, ontology, and psychology. Who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves.’

Now, if there ever was a challenge to scientific methodology, this might be one. But is Anderson right? What actually is the evidence that scientific and scholarly theory will be irrelevant, or less relevant, in the near future thanks to new data mining tools and methods? And what are the longer term implications of this line of reasoning? If theory goes out the door, what about methodology? And what will be the consequences for higher education and research training?

In this lecture, Paul Wouters will explore these questions in the framework of an exploration of the different scenarions of the future of scientific and scholarly knowledge creation that are currently en vogue.

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  • Paul F. Wouters
  • Name: Paul F. Wouters
  • Affiliation: NCeSS Visiting Research Fellow, Oxford Internet Institute
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