Machine learning ‘causing science crisis’

Source: BBC, Feb 2019

A growing amount of scientific research involves using machine learning software to analyse data that has already been collected. This happens across many subject areas ranging from biomedical research to astronomy. The data sets are very large and expensive.

‘Reproducibility crisis’

But, according to Dr Allen, the answers they come up with are likely to be inaccurate or wrong because the software is identifying patterns that exist only in that data set and not the real world.

“Often these studies are not found out to be inaccurate until there’s another real big dataset that someone applies these techniques to and says ‘oh my goodness, the results of these two studies don’t overlap‘,” she said.

“There is general recognition of a reproducibility crisis in science right now. I would venture to argue that a huge part of that does come from the use of machine learning techniques in science.”

The “reproducibility crisis” in science refers to the alarming number of research results that are not repeated when another group of scientists tries the same experiment. It means that the initial results were wrong. One analysis suggested that up to 85% of all biomedical research carried out in the world is wasted effort.

Flawed patterns

Machine learning systems and the use of big data sets has accelerated the crisis, according to Dr Allen. That is because machine learning algorithms have been developed specifically to find interesting things in datasets and so when they search through huge amounts of data they will inevitably find a pattern.

“The challenge is can we really trust those findings?” she told BBC News.

“Are those really true discoveries that really represent science? Are they reproducible? If we had an additional dataset would we see the same scientific discovery or principle on the same dataset? And unfortunately the answer is often probably not.”

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