Machine Learning as the Enemy of Science? Not Really.

By Cansu Canca

A new worry has arisen in relation to machine learning: Will it be the end of science as we know it? The quick answer is, no, it will not. And here is why.

Let’s start by recapping what the problem seems to be. Using machine learning, we are increasingly more able to make better predictions than we can by using the tools of traditional scientific method, so to speak. However, these predictions do not come with causal explanation. In fact, the more complex the algorithms become—as we move deeper into deep neural networks—the better are the predictions and the worse are the explicability. And thus “if prediction is […] the primary goal of science” as some argue, then the pillar of scientific method—understanding of phenomena—becomes superfluous and machine learning seems to be a better tool for science than scientific method.

But is this really the case? This argument makes two assumptions: (1) The primary goal of science is prediction and once a system is able to make accurate predictions, the goal of science is achieved; and (2) machine learning conflicts with and replaces the scientific method. I argue that neither of these assumptions hold. The primary goal of science is more than just prediction—it certainly includes explanation of how things work. And moreover, machine learning in a way makes use of and complements the scientific method, not conflicts with it.

Here is an example to explain what I mean. Prediction through machine learning is used extensively in healthcare. Algorithms are developed to predict hospital readmissions at the time of discharge or to predict when a patient’s condition will take a turn for worse. This is fantastic because these are certainly valuable pieces of information and it has been immensely difficult to make accurate predictions in these areas. In that sense, machine learning methodology indeed surpasses the traditional scientific method in predicting these outcomes. However, this is neither the whole story nor the end of the story. Continue reading