Joanna Masel, University of Arizona

Wednesday, March 20, 3:30-4:30, Arizona Senior Academy Building

What is Big Data, and why should we care? Joanna Masel, professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona, thinks we need to care about the huge volume of data now available, on every topic imaginable, in amounts too vast for ordinary data-processing software to deal with, because it can help us think through enormously complex problems. “The most powerful tool today in biology is the download button.”

 She finds that in science, “data is absolutely critical, the same as it always has been.” However, the answers we get from mining Big Data are especially vulnerable to confusing factors, just because it is so big and disorganized. “So,” she says, “I picked one way of testing, which is the best way of testing, randomized trials.” Ultimately, the answers involve “probability and statistics”: as her title states, “There is no Certainty.”

In the process the concept of the “randomized experiment” comes into question. Masel questions if randomized experiments may be too difficult, expensive, or even unethical to conduct. Does the human desire for certainty predispose us to an irrational dislike of randomized experiments, one that might actually be holding science back? 

How much can we rely on mining Big Data to answer scientific questions? After all, Masel says, “The aspiration to collect as much data as possible is not new,” and now that we have the technology for storing and sorting, we can bring it to bear on questions that in the past would simply have been tested in ways that could not lead to verifiable answers.   “Not every scientific study gets the answer right.”

Masel states that she “became a mathematical biologist at age 17, when she entered university in her native country, Australia. “At the time, biology was where exciting things were happening, so I strategically chose to become a biologist.” She went on to earn her doctorate in zoology at Oxford University and to do her postdoctoral research in biological sciences at Stanford University.

Written by Don and Carol Gilzinger, with Suzanne Ferguson, Academy Village Volunteers

Mar. 20: “The Search for Certainty: There Is No Certainty”