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Big data need big theory too.

Coveney, PV; Dougherty, ER; Highfield, RR; (2016) Big data need big theory too. Philosophical Transactions A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences , 374 , Article 20160153. 10.1098/rsta.2016.0153. Green open access

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Abstract

The current interest in big data, machine learning and data analytics has generated the widespread impression that such methods are capable of solving most problems without the need for conventional scientific methods of inquiry. Interest in these methods is intensifying, accelerated by the ease with which digitized data can be acquired in virtually all fields of endeavour, from science, healthcare and cybersecurity to economics, social sciences and the humanities. In multiscale modelling, machine learning appears to provide a shortcut to reveal correlations of arbitrary complexity between processes at the atomic, molecular, meso- and macroscales. Here, we point out the weaknesses of pure big data approaches with particular focus on biology and medicine, which fail to provide conceptual accounts for the processes to which they are applied. No matter their 'depth' and the sophistication of data-driven methods, such as artificial neural nets, in the end they merely fit curves to existing data. Not only do these methods invariably require far larger quantities of data than anticipated by big data aficionados in order to produce statistically reliable results, but they can also fail in circumstances beyond the range of the data used to train them because they are not designed to model the structural characteristics of the underlying system. We argue that it is vital to use theory as a guide to experimental design for maximal efficiency of data collection and to produce reliable predictive models and conceptual knowledge. Rather than continuing to fund, pursue and promote 'blind' big data projects with massive budgets, we call for more funding to be allocated to the elucidation of the multiscale and stochastic processes controlling the behaviour of complex systems, including those of life, medicine and healthcare.This article is part of the themed issue 'Multiscale modelling at the physics-chemistry-biology interface'.

Type: Article
Title: Big data need big theory too.
Location: England
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
DOI: 10.1098/rsta.2016.0153
Publisher version: http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsta.2016.0153
Language: English
Additional information: © 2015 The Authors. Published by the Royal Society under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/, which permits unrestricted use, provided the original author and source are credited.
Keywords: big data, biomedicine, epistemology, machine learning, personalized medicine
UCL classification: UCL
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL BEAMS
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL BEAMS > Faculty of Maths and Physical Sciences
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL BEAMS > Faculty of Maths and Physical Sciences > Dept of Chemistry
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1520264
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