Sunday, June 16, 2013

Crediting Einstein for ignoring data

Sydney Finkelstein writes on the UK BBC:
What would big data think of Einstein?

Albert Einstein, author of the theory of relativity, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921. Would his genius make it past the big data test today? ...

But big data should not be confused with big ideas. It is in those ideas — the ones that make us conjure up the image of Albert Einstein — that lead to breakthroughs. ...

Companies, like civilisations, advance by leaps and bounds when genius is let loose, not when genius is locked away and deemed too out of the mainstream of data-driven knowledge.

What if Albert Einstein lived today and not 100 years ago? What would big data say about the general theory of relativity, about quantum theory? There was no empirical support for his ideas at the time — that’s why we call them breakthroughs.

Today, Einstein might be looked at as a curiosity, an “interesting” man whose ideas were so out of the mainstream that a blogger would barely pay attention. Come back when you've got some data to support your point.
No, this popular view of Einstein and of scientific breakthroughs is entirely wrong. Relativity and quantum theory were driven by empirical support. Special relativity was driven by Michelson-Morley and electron beams. General relativity by Mercury's precession and starlight deflection. Quantum theory by atomic spectra. We called them breakthroughs because they did explain the data, not because they did not.

Einstein is commonly praised for ignoring data and thinking deep thoughts. However this praise is misguided, and there are very few examples of science progressing that way.

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