The hedgehog and the Quants


Nate Silver bashing everywhere I look. For example in the New York Times. Paul Krugman does it. And someone called Timothy Egan. `Creativity vs. Quants‘ is the title of his OpEd – how silly! Does he really thing we quantitative folks are mechanical calculation machines devoid of any creative thought? If you think quantitative work is not creative, you just haven’t done it yet.

Intimidation by quantification

Much more interesting, I thought, was Leon Wieseltier’s take in the the New Republic. I really like Wieseltier’s phrase ‘intimidation by quantification’ – this is how my biological collaboration partners must feel when I bombard them with p-values.

Wieseltier discusses the old idea of the hedgehog and the fox (dating back to ancient Greece) that Silver had used to explain the Fox logo of FiveThirtyEight: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

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Finding correlations in big data — ask the expert!

The paper Detecting Novel Associations in Large Data Sets stirred up quite some excitement. Mostly in the stats/comp community, where many welcomed a theory paper in a prominent journal, but some voiced concers about the quality of the results. I’ve posted about this previously.

Now another prominent journal, Nature Biotech, tries to explain what the fuzz is about to a wider readership by interviewing 8 experts: Gustavo Stolovitzky, Peng Qiu, Eran Segal, Bill Noble, Olga Troyanskaya, Noah Simon & Rob Tibshirani, and Edward Dougherty:

No big surprises for me, but maybe a nice intro for people not from the network-field.


Duty Calls, Philosophy, Science

On systems biology and bullshit

Clarity and lucidity are key strengths of scientists and writers. Jargon and cliches can make the best paper unreadable. This is why science writer Carl Zimmer keeps an index of banned words his students should avoid.

One of the words on the index is ‘breakthrough,’ which is overused, because the person reporting it doesn’t bother to think about how big the step forward really is. Using such cliches shows sloppy thinking and lack of scrutiny. This is why Zimmer bans ‘breakthrough‘ “unless you are covering Principia Mathematica”, in which case you are fine, regardless of whether you refer to Whitehead and Russell or Newton.

Not only science writers need to avoid cliches and enrich their texts for content – ‘real’ scientists also often use fancy buzz words with far too much levity. Just think of these three (in no particular order) that you can hear in almost every systems biology talk:

  1. Integrated,
  2. Network,
  3. System.

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Philosophy, Science

Here be dragons! Thomas Kuhn, Statistics and System Biology

Here be dragons!

Thomas Kuhn had physics in mind when he wrote Structure of scientific revolutions but his key ideas also apply to statistics and systems biology and can explain some of the confusion in the field.

Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of scientific revolutions desribes the history of science as phases of normal science separated by revolutions and paradigm shifts. During normal science, research is guided by  a ruling paradigm, which identifies feasible problems and routes to tackle them. Normal science is a period of puzzle solving. The better your paradigm, the clearer the puzzle, the better your chances to solve it and progress.

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