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Is Computer Science Truly Scientific?


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Reflections on the (experimental) scientific method in computer science.

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CACM Administrator

The following letter was published as a Letter to the Editor in the November 2010 CACM (http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2010/11/100636).
--CACM Administrator

In his Viewpoint "Is Computer Science Truly Scientific?" (July 2010), Gonzalo Gnova suggested that computer science suffers from "radical empiricism," leading to rejection of research not supported by empirical evidence. We take issue with both his claim and (perhaps ironically) the evidence he used to support it.

Gnova rhetorically asked "Must all scientific works be reasoned and demonstrable?," answering emphatically, "Yes, of course," to which we whole-heartedly agree. Broadly, there are two ways to achieve this goal: inference and deduction. Responding to the letter to the editor by Joseph G. Davis "No Straw Man in Empirical Research" (Sept. 2010, p. 7), Gnova said theoretical research rests on definition and proof, not on evidence. Nonetheless, he appeared to be conflating inference and deduction in his argument that seminal past research would be unacceptable today. Many of the famous computer scientists he cited to support this assertion Turing, Shannon, Knuth, Hoare, Dijkstra worked (and proved their findings) largely in the more-theoretical side of CS. Even a cursory reading of the latest Proceedings of the Symposium on Discrete Algorithms or Proceedings of Foundations of Computer Science turns up many theoretical papers with little or no empirical content. The work of other pioneers Gnova cited, including Meyer and Gamma, might have required more empirical evidence if presented today. Gnova implied their work would not be accepted, and we would therefore be unable to benefit from it. The fact that they met the requirements of their time but (arguably) not of ours does not mean they would not have risen to the occasion had the bar been set higher. We suspect they would have, and CS would be none the poorer for it.

Gnova's suggestion that CS suffers today from "radical empiricism" is an empirical, not deductive, claim that can be investigated through surveys and reviews. Still, he supported it via what he called "inductive justification," which sounds to us like argument by anecdote. Using the same inductive approach, conversations with our colleagues here at the University of California, Davis, especially those in the more theoretical areas of CS, lead us to conclude that today's reviews, though demanding and sometimes disappointing, are not "radically empirical." To the extent a problem exists in the CS review process, it is due to "hypercriticality," as Moshe Y. Vardi said in his "Editor's Letter" (July 2010, p. 5), not "radical empiricism."

Earl Barr and Christian Bird
Davis, CA

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AUTHOR'S RESPONSE

I'm glad to hear from Barr and Bird that there are healthy subfields in CS in this respect. I used "inductive justification" to support the claim that many classical works in the field are more theoretical and speculative than experimental, not to support an argument that CS suffers today from "radical empiricism." Investigating the latter through exhaustive empirical surveys of reviews would require surveyors being able to classify a reviewer as a "radical empiricist." If my column served this purpose, then I am content with it.

Gonzalo Gnova
Madrid, Spain


CACM Administrator

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the September 2010 CACM (http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2010/9/98018).
--CACM Administrator

In his Viewpoint "Is Computer Science Truly Scientific?" (July 2010), Gonzalo Gnova would have made a stronger case if he used the words "theoretical" or "conceptual" instead of "speculative" to support his argument against the excessively empirical orientation of much of today's CS research. The life cycle of scientific ideas generally progresses from the speculative phase in which many candidate ideas are pursued, with only a few surviving to be presented or published as theoretical contributions, often supported by robust analytical models. Journal editors are unlikely to summarily reject contributions making it to this stage because they provide the conjectures and hypotheses that can be tested through rigorous empirically oriented research.

Gnova also set up a straw man when he railed against the excesses of verificationism and empiricism. Who would argue against the proposition that credible scientific advances need good empirical research experiments, simulation, proof-of-concept prototype construction, and surveys? Such research needs models and hypotheses that might have begun as speculative conjectures at an earlier point in time.

Nave empiricism has no place in CS research. Moreover, purely speculative research without adequate analytical foundations is unlikely to help advance CS (or any other) research.

Joseph G. Davis
Sydney, Australia

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AUTHOR'S RESPONSE

Davis ("credible scientific advances need good empirical research") and I ("experimentation without the guide of speculative thinking is worthless") fundamentally agree. When I said "speculative thinking," I meant "theoretical contributions supported by robust analytical models," not freely dancing ideas without purpose.

There may also be slight disagreement regarding empirical validation, the excesses of which I criticized. It is clear that theories about physical phenomena require empirical validation; theories about mathematical objects do not. Many areas in CS deal with conceptual or information objects more akin to mathematical objects than to their physical counterparts. Therefore, requiring empirical validation is out of place here.

Gonzalo Gnova
Madrid, Spain


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