I recently discovered a passionating debate in philosophy of science about the contingentism/inevitabilism issue (see this book). Quoting Lena Soler, one the authors of the book and major expert in this domain, the debate is roughly about that: “Could science have been otherwise? could have it been dramatically different from science as we now it today? Is there something inevitable in a sound scientific enterprise? Could we have developed an alternative successful science based on different notions, conceptions, results?” Note that the aim here is not to discuss the importance of an exotic pseudo-science but to reason about the fact whether the scientific notions, concepts, techniques, we are using today are really necessary or if a different scientific path (i.e. still scientific in Popper’s terminology) would have been possible.
In my opinion, it is quite natural to conceive, that being science a human enterprise, it could have been evolving in a very different manner. How many choices, decisions, conclusions (or Nobel prizes) in the scientific world have been dictated by contingencies, social aspects, historical contexts, politics, economics or nationalistic considerations? Was all of that inevitable? For instance, think simply to the obscure fate that could await today a revolutionary article, unfortunately written in very bad English…
This debate evoked in me some considerations about the role of data science in all that. The success of data science is the living proof that, starting from the same (or very similar) premises, modeling can have multiple, heterogenous outcomes. Think for instance to address a scientific prediction problem in a data driven manner and consider the overabundance of techniques, methods, algorithms that you could use to solve this problem. From a data scientist perspective contingentism is a pure evidence. The same problem could be tackled in many different manners but with roughly the same accuracy from an external prediction perspective. So the question raises spontaneously: what would have happened if Keplero or Newton would have had the same attitude (or better computational power)? Would the gravitational laws have the same form, the same aspect? Notions like mass, gravity would be the same? Would the consequent course of science be the same?
Also, is not data science a formidable manner of playing again the history of science? Which kind of scientific product would have been returned by a today data scientist once put in front to the same experimental evidence of renowned scientists of the past centuries?