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Knowing More and More about Less and Less

This morning I was reading The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis’s map of the medieval “model” of the world. Lewis points out that the Model was wrong but that so is ours. Then I came to work, pulled up my feed reader and got hit with this article from Wired which suggests we ought to scrap models altogether in favor of massive data crunching.

If the words “discover a new species” call to mind Darwin and drawings of finches, you may be stuck in the old way of doing science. Venter can tell you almost nothing about the species he found. He doesn’t know what they look like, how they live, or much of anything else about their morphology. He doesn’t even have their entire genome. All he has is a statistical blip — a unique sequence that, being unlike any other sequence in the database, must represent a new species.

This sequence may correlate with other sequences that resemble those of species we do know more about. In that case, Venter can make some guesses about the animals — that they convert sunlight into energy in a particular way, or that they descended from a common ancestor. But besides that, he has no better model of this species than Google has of your MySpace page. It’s just data. By analyzing it with Google-quality computing resources, though, Venter has advanced biology more than anyone else of his generation.

Science advancing by statistical blips rather than the old way of postulating a theory and testing it via carefully conducted experimentation. If the old way of doing science left out the individual, as Walker Percy and others have pointed out, what of this new way? Complete obliteration of the individual.

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