The end of hard-edged science?

Bradley Efron says that science is moving away from things like predicting sunrise times and toward predicting things like the weather. The trend is away from studying precisely predictable systems, what Efron calls “hard-edged science,” and toward studying systems “where predictability is tempered by a heavy dose of randomness.”

Hard-edged science still dominates public perceptions, but the attention of modern scientists has swung heavily toward rainfall-like subjects, the kind where random behavior plays a major role. … Deterministic Newtonian science is majestic, and the basis of modern science too, but a few hundred years of it pretty much exhausted nature’s storehouse of precisely predictable events. Subjects like biology, medicine, and economics require a more flexible scientific world view, the kind we statisticians are trained to understand.

Certainly there is increased interest in systems containing “a heavy dose of randomness” but can we really say that we have “pretty much exhausted nature’s storehouse of precisely predictable effects”?

Source: Modern Science and the Bayesian-Frequentist Controversy

Related posts:

Scientific results fading over time
Occam’s razor and Bayes’ theorem
The law of medium numbers

11 thoughts on “The end of hard-edged science?

  1. Yoav: It’s subtle, but I think you’re essentially right. I agree with E. T. Jaynes that most of what is said about “randomness” is nonsense. This post has a couple quotes from Jaynes along these lines.

  2. EastwoodDC: I’d like to think so, that what is understood statistically today would be understood more fundamentally tomorrow. But I think Efron is resigned to never understanding anything again the way we understand Newtonian mechanics.

  3. I think there is a subtlety that hasn’t been addressed yet. There is a difference between chaotic systems and random systems. One is completely deterministic and the other is not. The problem with atmospheric science is that the system is chaotic. This means that the equations that govern atmospheric science are understood “fairly-well”. However, it is practically impossible to make hard predictions because small perturbations in measurements can have a huge impact in the evolution of the system. After saying that, just because one can’t get hard predictions, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t really useful information to learn from them (ie. bifurcations) which are testable.

  4. This sounds suspiciously like the Grad Student’s Lament: “All the easy problems have been solved, and I’m stuck studying something that God would barely understand!” (And I’m not going to get some cool Law or Theorem named after me, either.)

    Twenty years from now, Efron’s students will tell him that HE got solve all the hard-edged problems; he left the “soft” ones for them.

  5. Yoav,

    in a trivial sense, yes, randomness is just lack of information about future outcomes of random trials.

    We are past Newtonian mechanics here, dealing with systems that have true quantum randomness in them. Even if we could describe these systems with good old mechanics, there is still the problem of chaos. Chaos essentially means you need infinite number of decimal places, and therefore infinite information, to describe something fully.

    Conversely, the evolution a chaotic system may be determined by a truly random quantum coin flip.

  6. Hi Thomas,

    I am confused by your last statement:

    “Conversely, the evolution a chaotic system may be determined by a truly random quantum coin flip.”

    What do you mean by this? Are you just trying to say that a system could seem random because either it is
    1) chaotic (and the initial conditions are not perfectly known) or it is
    2) stochastic (in which case probably has a quantum element to it)

    If this is the case, I totally agree. Also, I like the definition of chaos theory that wikipedia gives. “Small differences in initial conditions (such as those due to rounding errors in numerical computation) yield widely diverging outcomes for chaotic systems, rendering long-term prediction impossible in general.”

  7. I know what I will say is a little bit weird to a material mind set.
    The thing that modern science is forgotten is God’s factor. This should be a new branch in science in which you should believe that every single atom, particle, electron, proton, … etc is fully controlled by God.
    Humans do science discoveries in order to control nature. And nature is as I said fully controlled by God. And what God wants in order to give some control over his nature is to believe in Him and obey his orders.
    Thanks,
    Ahmed.

  8. Ahmed: I would agree that God is sovereign over every particle in the universe. However, God almost always exercises His sovereignty in regular ways. Science is the study of this regularity. The belief that God’s consistency makes it worthwhile to study science is one reason modern science developed in the West and not, for example, in animist cultures.

    When God chooses to act outside His usual manner, i.e. to perform a miracle, He does something that science would not and could not have predicted. This is not to deny the possibility of miracles, only to say that they are by definition beyond the ability of science to predict.

    For more discussion along these lines, I recommend the book Miracles by C. S. Lewis. The author had a surprisingly good grasp on science for someone whose life’s work was literature.

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