Does Sergy Brin's search for a cure mean the Internet will kill the scientific method?
There's an interesting article in the July 2010 edition of Wired magazine (yes, it's the print publication I subscribe to, but only because the FAA won't let us read electronically during takeoff and landing--one of the best times to read). The article is about Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google. Brin estimates that he has a 50/50 chance of contracting Parkinson's, and he is helping fund research to find a cure--hopefully, before he develops the debilitating disease.
The entire article is intriguing--what Parkinson's is, its possible genetic links, and the personal story of an intelligent, highly successful man. Yet, what fascinated me most was an underlying theme that the standard scientific method as we've known it could become extinct in the future.
You remember the scientific method: propose a hypothesis, design tests, analyze results, repeat until convinced. This standard method for gaining knowledge--for seeking the truth--has been used for a thousand years and has led to countless discoveries and breakthroughs.
The Internet, or I should probably say the Information Age, could bring about the demise of the standard scientific method. How? By virtue of the massive amount of data that continues to be produced--prior to any hypotheses. The new scientific method, as talked about in the Wired article, could look like this: scan the data, look for patterns, draw conclusions, find truth. No more would a scientist have a sudden thought and seek to prove it. Instead, "regular" people would contribute data that, when aggregated, would reveal the secrets of science.
With an estimated 2 billion users of the Internet today, the amount of data they can provide about a given problem is enormous. In the case of disease, for instance, people who report on their health and living conditions could reveal commonalities that today's monster search engines could uncover: things that a limited set of tests, no matter how carefully thought out, could not. Disclosure would be voluntary--I don't want to get into privacy issues here--and I suspect people who become ill or have loved ones in danger would be more than willing to contribute information to finding a cure, and even better, prevention.
The standards that I deal with every day are miniscule and fleeting compared to the scientific method. When a standard as ingrained as the scientific method is abandoned, I'm in awe.
Karen Bartleson is senior director of community marketing at Synopsys, Inc. and author of The Ten Commandments for Effective Standards. Her blog is The Standards Game.