Lars Jörgen Pålsson Syll is a Swedish economist who is a Professor of Social Studies and Associate professor of Economic History at Malmö University College.
If we wanted highly probable claims, scientists would stick to low-level observables and not seek generalizations, much less theories with high explanatory content. In this day of fascination with Big data’s ability to predict what book I’ll buy next, a healthy Popperian reminder is due: humans also want to understand and to explain. We want bold ‘improbable’ theories. I’m a little puzzled when I hear leading machine learners praise Popper, a realist, while proclaiming themselves fervid instrumentalists. That is, they hold the view that theories, rather than aiming at truth, are just instruments for organizing and predicting observable facts. It follows from the success of machine learning, Vladimir Cherkassy avers, that “realism is not possible.” This is very quick philosophy!
The central problem with the present ‘machine learning’ and ‘big data’ hype is that so many — falsely — think that they can get away with analysing real-world phenomena without any (commitment to) theory. But — data never speaks for itself. Without a prior statistical set-up, there actually are no data at all to process. And — using a machine learning algorithm will only produce what you are looking for.
Machine learning algorithms always express a view of what constitutes a pattern or regularity. They are never theory-neutral.
Clever data-mining tricks are not enough to answer important scientific questions. Theory matters.