Looking back at Babylonian astronomy from the twentieth century, one is struck by two things: the care with which the records were kept, and the mathematical brilliance of the predictive techniques. Eventually, science was to owe a great debt to the Babylonian astronomers, for speculative theories about the Heavens could, in the long run, be tested only by seeing how far they explained the observed motions of the heavenly bodies. The Babylonian material was to be fundamental
for Hipparchos and Ptolemy. One might almost think - reading history backwards - that the Babylonians had compiled their records and worked out their analyses of the phenomena with the intention of providing the bases for a scientific astronomy.
Yet this seems to be far from the truth. Although they were able to make forecasts of great accuracy, they did so in a way which did nothing to explain the events in question. Their work made eclipses, conjunctions, and retrogradations predictable, but it made them no more intelligible than before. One could go on thinking of the planets in any way one pleased, and the regularities in their motions remained fundamentally mysterious. The demand for explanations of natural happenings originated, indeed, not in Babylonia so much as in Greece; and when we ask what a scientific explanation can, and should, do for us, we must bear this multiple origin of science in mind.
- The Fabric of the Heavens, Toulmin and Goodfield, p. 41
If we can predict what effect a particular SNP or CNV will have on your risk for cancer or heart disease, do we really need to understand why that variant has the effect it does?
There is this tension in biomedical research, especially regarding anything involving genomics or computational biology, between prediction and understanding. In some cases we have so much data that it's easier to build a very predictive, data-crunching, black box computational model than it is to understand the biological basis of the phenomenon being studied. (This goes on, notoriously, in quantitative finance as well.)
What gets neglected is understanding, which may not pay off in practical terms for a long time to come. The Babylonian excelled at prediction. The Greeks wanted to understand, but they could hardly predict a damn thing at first. And yet the Greeks set astronomy on the path that eventually led to General Relativity.
Read the feed: