The Quest for Knowledge

Wired has declared the end of science, at least that’s what the cover of the July issue says.  The graphic is a quaint still life with symbols of the old knowledge – analog tools, ledgers, books, although no print magazines among these images of the olden days.  In hard copy versions, the ubiquitous card catalog is front and center.  It always seems to appear when millenarians want to display the horrors of a pre-digital era. 

Of course, Wired contradicts itself even on the cover.  The subtitle to “The End of Science” is “The quest for knowledge used to begin with grand theories.  Now it begins with massive amounts of data.”  In other words, massive data is not the end of science.  It is a new method for conducting science.  The result is still a quest for knowledge.   

Inside the magazine, the article title is a little calmer – “The End of Theory:  Scientists have always relied on hypotheses and experimentation.  Now, in the era of massive data, there’s a better way.”  Again, massive data is not the end of science, but “a better way” for scientists to do their work. 

Throughout the article, author and Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson pulls back from his “End of Science” headline.  “The scientific method is built around testable hypotheses . . . . This is the way science has worked for hundreds of years.”  Only hundreds?  We’ve been questing for knowledge for thousands of years.  Now, he tells us, “faced with massive data, this approach to science – hypothesize, model, test – is becoming obsolete.”  So Anderson is forecasting the end of a method that has been used for a few hundred years, not the end of science itself.

And here we get back to the millenarian viewpoint.  Anderson uses his cover to tell us the sky is falling.  Wow, things are changing so much, we won’t even have science any more.  He’s a magazine huckster, drawing us in with a dramatic statement he doesn’t even attempt to prove, with those big letters sitting just below the card catalog, saying loud and clear: The End of Science.

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Jul 2008

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