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The Big Problem with Big Data? Without Theory, It's Just Garbage


Uta Frith doesn't want to meet Donald Trump. "There would be no point in my saying anything to him."

Uta Frith, a developmental psychologist at University College London, has been working to advance the interests of women in science for decades.

Credit: Getty Images

Uta Frith doesn't want to meet Donald Trump. "There would be no point in my saying anything to him," she says. "Mostly, when scientists give advice to politicians, politicians listen only to the things they want to hear." Frith, a developmental psychologist who works at University College London, should know. Not only has she been a pioneer in the study of dyslexia and autism — in the 1960s, she was one of the first researchers in the U.K. to study Asperger's Syndrome — but she has also been working to advance the interests of women in science for decades.

As part of our Scientists Meet the Media series, Frith spoke to WIRED about mind over matter, big data and her fear that AI will lead to loss of meaningful jobs.

Uta Frith on the anti-science sentiment

Being anti-science can only too easily be combined with embracing the benefits of science. The rapid advances are perceived as part of technology, and technology is used because it works. If you use a gadget or a pill and it works, you don't concern yourself with the question, "How does it work?". This question is left to the scientists to answer. But their answers are often dismissed as just theory. There is a suspicion that scientists themselves don't know the answer, and merely guess (stating probabilities rather than certainties). They are also known to argue among themselves, which only reinforces the idea.

Perhaps this state of affairs is also due to the fact that scientific explanations are very hard to understand. We are good at avoiding difficult tasks and at justifying this. So, rather than admitting to not getting it, it is comforting, at least temporarily, to stand by one's own irrational opinion and to dismiss scientists' theories as abstruse or self-serving.

From Wired U.K.
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