Scientists lured by freedom to experiment beyond the hallowed venues

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By Pam Baker

Scientists love to experiment. But traditional venues are very restrictive about what experiments can be done and how they are to be executed. However this is not the case in the free-wheeling, big data world outside academia and stuffy old science halls. Thus, more than a few scientists in every discipline are running for corporate jobs in data science where they can experiment on millions of people almost at a whim. Sometimes this turns out to be a good thing; sometimes it’s bad. But in any case, what we have here is a “Scientists Gone Wild” spree.

“Academia is slow and only a few people see your work,” said Scott Clark, who designed the genome-mapping algorithm for Yelp, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “At Yelp, I can be pushing out experiments that affect hundreds of millions of people. When I make a small change to the Yelp website, I have a bigger impact.”

Not everyone is thrilled about this, however, and more than a few ethical questions have been raised.

“Some such experiments have raised alarms. Facebook was recently in the spotlight for an experiment in which its data-science team sought to manipulate people’s emotions by altering the content of their news feeds,” writes Elizabeth Dwoskin, the author of the aforementioned post. “Christian Rudder, president of IAC/InterActiveCorp.’s OkCupid dating site, recently disclosed in a blog post that the site manipulated its feeds by inflating the likelihood that any two people were a match, to encourage them to use the service more.”

No doubt we’ll soon learn about more such dubious experiments as far too many companies are putting few–if any–restraints on their data scientists’ activities. (Most corporate executive types have no clue what their data scientists are doing anyway, so most don’t bother to pretend they can police them.)

Let me make it clear that we are not, as a nation, suffering from a massive outbreak of mad scientists in a data-fueled frenzy. You need not break out duct tape to bind your doors and windows nor don aluminum hats.

However, if you are a corporate head, now would be a very good time to establish some boundaries and rules for your team–preferably before your company is sued.

If you are a data scientist, now would be the time to adhere to strict ethical rules set forth by any number of legitimate organizations. See my earlier posts listed below in the Related Articles section for the names of some of those.

If you are head-honcho-what’s-in-charge of academic or science institutions, circles, organizations, or other prestigious and authoritative bodies, now would be a good time to revisit the rules and speed up your processes. I don’t know if you noticed yet, but you’re suffering from some major brain drain. And I’m not even kidding about that.

“Saba Zuberi, an astrophysicist working as a data scientist at TaskRabbit, said working for a consumer Internet firm can be surprisingly rewarding,” writes Dwoskin. “At TaskRabbit, a startup that helps find hired hands for basic chores like packing boxes or housekeeping, users are shown a listing of potential ‘rabbits’ who can do the tasks. To create the listings, Ms. Zuberi spent six months building a model that takes into account a worker’s location, scheduling constraints, experience, ratings and payments rates, and attributes of the person making the request. The more factors that need to be weighted and matched, the more complex the model, she said.”

“Over time, the software learns which factors are more important to which customers and refines the listings,” continues Dwoskin in her post. “Ms. Zuberi said that while designing algorithms at TaskRabbit may not be as intellectually challenging as setting out to prove new theories of particle physics, the work felt more meaningful.”

In the end, scientists just want to have fun–and do something that matters. Ha! See? Despite their incredible skills and data analysis super powers, they’re just as human as the rest of us.

For more:
– read the Wall Street Journal post     

Related Articles:
New ethics council forms to guide big data researchers
University of Virginia launches Big Data Institute, includes ethics
Data scientists create code of professional conduct

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