A Philosophical Study
University of Chicago Press 2016
Commentators have been forecasting the eclipse of hypothesis-driven science and the rise of a new ‘data-driven’ science for some time now. Harkening back to the aspirations of Enlightenment empiricists, who sought to establish for the collection of sense data what astronomers had done for the movements of heavenly bodies, they appeal to a general consensus that the acceleration of data collection through computing technologies requires a parallel shift toward computational thinking. This raises the question, however, of how computational practices have changed over the last few decades. Sabina Leonelli’s Data-Centric Biology: A Philosophical Study (U of Chicago Press, 2016) is the first book-length treatment of how large-scale data collection impacts the work of the life sciences. The book offers a historically and socially informed epistemology of data, situating its production, consumption, and regulation within laboratory practices.
In fact, while much work in the history and sociology of biotechnology has attended to the kind of scalar changes associated with visible endeavors like the Human Genome Project, Leonelli’s account bucks this trend by looking at how plant biologists have made use of new tools and adopted different norms of sharing. The political economy of data she describes is biopolitical in a more pervasive sense, and the book offers support for the Open Science movement while subjecting it to keen philosophical scrutiny.
Mikey McGovern is a PhD candidate in Princeton University’s Program in the History of Science. He works on computing, quantification, communication, and governance in modern America.