October 14, 2020
The post below is written for the upcoming Spanish translation of The Book of Why, which was announced today. It expresses my firm belief that the current data-fitting direction taken by “Data Science” is temporary (read my lips!), that the future of “Data Science” lies in causal data interpretation and that we should prepare ourselves for the backlash swing.
Data versus Science: Contesting the Soul of Data-Science
Much has been said about how ill-prepared our health-care system was in coping with catastrophic outbreaks like COVID-19. Yet viewed from the corner of my expertise, the ill-preparedness can also be seen as a failure of information technology to keep track of and interpret the outpour of data that have arrived from multiple and conflicting sources, corrupted by noise and omission, some by sloppy collection and some by deliberate misreporting, AI could and should have equipped society with intelligent data-fusion technology, to interpret such conflicting pieces of information and reason its way out of the confusion.
Speaking from the perspective of causal inference research, I have been part of a team that has developed a complete theoretical underpinning for such “data-fusion” problems; a development that is briefly described in Chapter 10 of The Book of Why. A system based on data fusion principles should be able to attribute disparities between Italy and China to differences in political leadership, reliability of tests and honesty in reporting, adjust for such differences and automatically infer behavior in countries like Spain or the US. AI is in a position to to add such data-interpreting capabilities on top of the data-fitting technologies currently in use and, recognizing that data are noisy, filter the noise and outsmart the noise makers.
“Data fitting” is the name I frequently use to characterize the data-centric thinking that dominates both statistics and machine learning cultures, in contrast to the “data-interpretation” thinking that guides causal inference. The data-fitting school is driven by the faith that the secret to rational decisions lies in the data itself, if only we are sufficiently clever at data mining. In contrast, the data-interpreting school views data, not as a sole object of inquiry but as an auxiliary means for interpreting reality, and “reality” stands for the processes that generate the data.
I am not alone in this assessment. Leading researchers in the “Data Science” enterprise have come to realize that machine learning as it is currently practiced cannot yield the kind of understanding that intelligent decision making requires. However, what many fail to realize is that the transition from data-fitting to data-understanding involves more than a technology transfer; it entails a profound paradigm shift that is traumatic if not impossible. Researchers whose entire productive career have committed them to the supposition that all knowledge comes from the data cannot easily transfer allegiance to a totally alien paradigm, according to which extra-data information is needed, in the form of man-made, causal models of reality. Current machine learning thinking, which some describe as “statistics on steroids,” is deeply entrenched in this self-propelled ideology.
Ten years from now, historians will be asking: How could scientific leaders of the time allow society to invest almost all its educational and financial resources in data-fitting technologies and so little on data-interpretation science? The Book of Why attempts to answer this dilemma by drawing parallels to historically similar situations where ideological impediments held back scientific progress. But the true answer, and the magnitude of its ramifications, will only be unravelled by in-depth archival studies of the social, psychological and economical forces that are currently governing our scientific institutions.
A related, yet perhaps more critical topic that came up in handling the COVID-19 pandemic, is the issue of personalized care. Much of current health-care methods and procedures are guided by population data, obtained from controlled experiments or observational studies. However, the task of going from these data to the level of individual behavior requires counterfactual logic, which has been formalized and algorithmatized in the past 2 decades (as narrated in Chapter 8 of The Book of Why), and is still a mystery to most machine learning researchers.
The immediate area where this development could have assisted the COVID-19 pandemic predicament concerns the question of prioritizing patients who are in “greatest need” for treatment, testing, or other scarce resources. “Need” is a counterfactual notion (i.e., patients who would have gotten worse had they not been treated) and cannot be captured by statistical methods alone. A recently posted blog page https://ucla.in/39Ey8sU demonstrates in vivid colors how counterfactual analysis handles this prioritization problem.
The entire enterprise known as “personalized medicine” and, more generally, any enterprise requiring inference from populations to individuals, rests on counterfactual analysis, and AI now holds the key theoretical tools for operationalizing this analysis.
People ask me why these capabilities are not part of the standard tool sets available for handling health-care management. The answer lies again in training and education. We have been rushing too eagerly to reap the low-lying fruits of big data and data fitting technologies, at the cost of neglecting data-interpretation technologies. Data-fitting is addictive, and building more “data-science centers” only intensifies the addiction. Society is waiting for visionary leadership to balance this over-indulgence by establishing research, educational and training centers dedicated to “causal science.”
I hope it happens soon, for we must be prepared for the next pandemic outbreak and the information confusion that will probably come in its wake.