Thursday, July 26, 2012

Theory vs Practice

A recent article lead me on a thread of discovery to a "battle" between Noam Chomsky (who I admire for his activisim) and Peter Norvig (who I've had as a teacher in an AI class).   I'm already to weigh in on the experimentalist side (Norvig) because of this quote from an article in MIT's Technology Review.

Chomsky derided researchers in machine learning who use purely statistical methods to produce behavior that mimics something in the world, but who don't try to understand the meaning of that behavior. Chomsky compared such researchers to scientists who might study the dance made by a bee returning to the hive, and who could produce a statistically based simulation of such a dance without attempting to understand why the bee behaved that way. "That's a notion of [scientific] success that's very novel. I don't know of anything like it in the history of science," said Chomsky.
Technology Review.


My take on this is to do a simple substitution of terms and see how this view works out:

Chomsky derided researchers in machine learning who use purely statistical methods to produce behavior that mimics something in the world, but who don't try to understand the meaning of that behavior. Chomsky compared such researchers to scientists who might study the motion made by an electron in a magnetic field, and who could produce a statistically based simulation of such a motion without attempting to understand why the electron behaved that way. "That's a notion of [scientific] success that's very novel. I don't know of anything like it in the history of science," said Chomsky. -- Substitutions Mike Warot

I think that it's very useful to know how to model something, even if you don't know the exact reasons of why. Science is the process of building increasingly accurate models (theories) of the world that fit all available evidence. If evidence is found that doesn't fit the model, and can't be explained by errors, new models must be sought. This is why we praise both Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, as they both improved our models of the universe.

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