Big data bring great opportunities for both understanding the complex world we live in and making our lives better – but they are also ripe for misuse. In many areas of science increasingly powerful technologies allow researchers to generate a whole lot of data, which are then disseminated via digital databases. Having heaps of data available online sounds great, but it raises real problems. How are we to explore and make sense of this enormous quantity of data? Philosophers have had a lot to say about how we can make robust inferences by triangulating between multiple lines of evidence, and how we handle data in order to yield meaningful and reliable knowledge. I will draw on this literature to examine the conditions under which big data should be aggregated and interpreted. I then discuss the ways in which big data misuse could significantly damage the credibility and trustworthiness of scientific research as a whole.
About the speaker
Sabina Leonelli is a professor in philosophy and history of science at the University of Exeter, UK, where she co-directs the Exeter Centre for the Study of the Life Sciences and leads the 'Data Studies' research strand. Her research focuses on the philosophy of data-intensive science, especially the methods and assumptions involved in the production, dissemination and use of data in biology and biomedicine; the ways in which the open science movement is redefining what counts as research and knowledge across different research environments; and the epistemic status of experimental organisms as models and data sources, particularly in plant science. Her work involves collaborations with natural and social scientists, and historians of science; involvement in science policy initiatives such as the European Open Science Cloud and Open Science Policy Platform; and multiple sources of funding including a European Research Council award (2014–2019). She has widely published in the philosophy of science as well as biology and STS, and her monograph Data-Centric Biology: A Philosophical Study appeared in 2016 with Chicago University Press.
This public lecture was organised by The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk.