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Big Data and the End of Theory

October 5, 2012

The case here is way overstated, but I think the fundamental point is sound, and breathtaking. (You’re going to give me significant push-back here, Anke, I’m sure, though!)

“All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

So proclaimed statistician George Box 30 years ago, and he was right. But what choice did we have? Only models, from cosmological equations to theories of human behavior, seemed to be able to consistently, if imperfectly, explain the world around us. Until now. Today companies like Google, which have grown up in an era of massively abundant data, don’t have to settle for wrong models. Indeed, they don’t have to settle for models at all.

One thing I already see changing is that there’s a much shorter distance even in the humanities between data and analysis, a distance that used to be covered by theory. Or maybe I’m out to lunch. In my classroom, though, my students and I spend much less time hypothesizing and much more time analyzing. “The End of Theory”? Certainly not. The transformation of the role of theory, perhaps.

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