Data / Science / Inquiry

The past decades have witnessed a series of transformative shifts in the computational and statistical techniques that scientists use to collect, analyze, and share data. As early as 2008, pop media outlets such as Wired were predicting “the end of theory,” based on the provocative claim that “the data deluge makes the scientific method obsolete.” Yet beyond the hype surrounding “Big Data” are real technical and social tensions that are being negotiated across scientific domains.

To explore these questions, Social Science Matrix sponsored a seminar on “Data, Science, and Enquiry” focused on how new forms of data collection, management, and sharing are changing scientific research practices and modes of inquiry. Led by Cori Hayden, Associate Professor of Anthropology, and Massimo Mazzotti, Associate Professor of History, both from the Matrix-affiliated Center for Science, Medicine, Technology, & Society, the seminar brought together sixteen scholars from disciplines such as anthropology, cellular and molecular biology, geography, neuroscience, and history, who looked across domains to inquire into the pasts, presents, and possible futures of scientific inquiry.

They considered a wide array of data-management case studies from throughout history – such as colonial botany and double-entry bookkeeping – and examined the rise of information technology in the 20th century, examining how the field evolved from the holistic design of data and information management systems to an emphasis on technology.

Among the compelling questions they considered: what is the place of the scientific method in the history of science? What impact is Big Data having on academic practice? How are different forms of data collection and storage relevant to understanding analytic techniques? And how will new ways of collecting, sharing, and storing data allow new forms of collaboration? Such questions are of fundamental importance to the social sciences in the 21st century.

This project continued in subsequent months, as Matrix supported a related seminar focused on algorithms and culture. In addition, Professor Cori Hayden has offered a graduate seminar on "The Cloud & The Crowd," which will examine the convergence of data-driven technology and social science.