Wired Magazine has published an article by Chris Anderson arguing that theory is dead (The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete). The argument: with our ability to generate vast amounts of data, there is no need for theory. Now, it’s hard to parse what Anderson means by “theory” from the article. But he seems to be arguing that scientists are merely looking for correlations between various parameters, and claiming that’s a sufficient analysis. Is it? Well, sometimes, yes, if it’s based on a sound theoretical framework.
Deepak Singh has already called out Anderson (Chris Anderson, you are wrong), and Andrew at the Social Statistics blog has commented (The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete). I would like to weigh in with my perspective as an evolutionary biologist. Is theory dead in this subfield of biology?
In short, no, theory is not dead. Until a few decades back, theory was pretty much all we had in population genetics. There were some coarse experiments, but geneticists had yet to discover molecular biology. This was when the theoretical foundations of the field were developed. However, the molecular revolution changed all disciplines in biology, including those interested in answering evolutionary questions. First came allozyme analysis, then small-scale DNA sequencing, and, most recently, high throughput technologies. Along with these technical achievements came massive increases in computational power. And the contemporary interdisciplinary approaches in biology have added new experimental approaches and expertise to the data deluge.
What happened to the theory? There’s a saying in the field: first, we had all theory and no data; now, we have all data and no theory. That’s not quite true, but it fits Anderson’s thesis. What’s actually happened is that we now have the data to test much of the theory that was developed prior to the data dump. Additionally, the theory provides a framework for the experimental design of the data collection. We don’t just go out and collect data, although it may seem that way. Instead, the theory helps dictate which data to collect, how to collect it, and, finally, how to analyze it. Yes, the analysis of the data requires all that theory.
Is theoretical work dead now that we have so much data? No. In fact, I would argue that theory is as healthy as it has always been. There is merely more data and empirical work. Rather than a decrease in theory, there has been a massive increase in data, which makes it appear that the amount of theoretical work has decreased. Sure, the relative contribution of theory has decreased, but that’s only because the amount of empirical work has increased.