Data Interpretation in the Digital Age

Perspect Sci. 2014 Sep 12;22(3):397-417. doi: 10.1162/POSC_a_00140.


The consultation of internet databases and the related use of computer software to retrieve, visualise and model data have become key components of many areas of scientific research. This paper focuses on the relation of these developments to understanding the biology of organisms, and examines the conditions under which the evidential value of data posted online is assessed and interpreted by the researchers who access them, in ways that underpin and guide the use of those data to foster discovery. I consider the types of knowledge required to interpret data as evidence for claims about organisms, and in particular the relevance of knowledge acquired through physical interaction with actual organisms to assessing the evidential value of data found online. I conclude that familiarity with research in vivo is crucial to assessing the quality and significance of data visualised in silico; and that studying how biological data are disseminated, visualised, assessed and interpreted in the digital age provides a strong rationale for viewing scientific understanding as a social and distributed, rather than individual and localised, achievement.

Keywords: automation; computer; data; databases; experimentation; organisms; understanding.