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Have the Great Theories Become Obsolete?

Published on 6. November 2019, 17:17 h

Bielefeld University’s anniversary conference on 14 and 15 November
Be it relativity theory, systems theory, or game theory: to this day, great theories are the figureheads of science. But are algorithms replacing them with automated data analyses? This is the topic of the conference celebrating 50 years of Bielefeld University on 14 and 15 November. Its title: ‘The Theoretical University in the Data Age. Have the Great Theories Become Obsolete?’

To mark its anniversary, Bielefeld University is holding an interdisciplinary conference on the future of theories in November. Photo: Bielefeld University
To mark its anniversary, Bielefeld University is holding an interdisciplinary conference on the future of theories in November. Photo: Bielefeld University
More than 50 years ago, Professor Dr Helmut Schelsky, a sociologist, developed the plan of a ‘theoretical university’ thus laying the intellectual foundation for Bielefeld as a reform university. ‘The title of our anniversary conference commemorates the founding history of the university,’ says Professor Dr Angelika Epple. The historian is chairwoman of the Scientific Board for the anniversary academic programme. ‘With this title we are also asking whether, in times of big data, scepticism about theory—or even a feeling of fatigue regarding theory—has arisen across all disciplines.’ 


How attitude to theories is changing due to big data research
Today’s technology makes it possible to store huge amounts of data and analyse them rapidly. This has an effect on academic work. For years, various disciplines have been working increasingly with big data. Researchers automatically evaluate large amounts of data in order to explain phenomena. ‘It’s not just the great theories that have always been questioned, the same applies to mid-range theories as well. However, nowadays, criticism has taken on a completely different quality. Digitalization has the ability to change the foundations of sciences. That is why we are examining the way big data research is affecting the practice of theory formulation and the attitude towards theories across all disciplines,’ says Epple. ‘Will the phenomena of our world be explained in future primarily by data analyses instead of theories? Or does big data provide new insights that make the propositions of theories more precise?’

Keynote speeches and discussions on the future of theories
In the keynote speeches of the conference, two distinguished scholars from the field of research will explore the question of the future of theories: string theorist Professor Dr Robbert Dijkgraaf (Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, USA) on 14 November, and philosopher of science Professor Dr Nancy Cartwright (Durham University, England, and University of California San Diego, USA) on 15 November.

Professor Dr Angelika Epple is chairwoman of the Scientific Board for the anniversary academic programme.Photo: Bielefeld University/Ph. Ottendörfer
Professor Dr Angelika Epple is chairwoman of the Scientific Board for the anniversary academic programme. Photo: Bielefeld University/Ph. Ottendörfer
The conference will bring together academics from all disciplines at Bielefeld University. On 15 November, four parallel panels will deal with the theoretical diagnosis of contemporary societies (Panel A, English), contemporary text cultures (Panel B, German), machine learning and artificial intelligence (Panel C, English), and interdisciplinary practices of modelling (Panel D, English). Among the speakers are sociologist Professor Dr Stephan Lessenich (LMU Munich), linguist Professor Dr Andrea Rapp (TU Darmstadt), physicist Professor Dr Carlo Beenakker (Leiden University, Netherlands) and philosopher of science Professor Paul Humphreys PhD (University of Virginia, USA). A concluding panel discussion will explore the role of theory formation in various academic disciplines.

Panel discussion on the governance of academia in the data age
The programme also includes a roundtable debate with representatives from the fields of politics and academia on 15 November. They will be discussing ‘How should academia be governed in the data age? Good governance vs economization’. Professor Dr Dieter Imboden (research manager and emeritus professor of environmental physics at ETH Zurich), Professor Dr Ada Pellert (rector of FernUniversität Hagen, member of the Digital Council of the Federal Government) and Professor Dr Eva Quante-Brandt (Bremen science senator (retired) and long-standing education and science politician) are among those that have confirmed their participation. 

The conference is open to academics from all disciplines. Researchers from German and international universities and colleges are invited. Registration is free.

In the run-up to the anniversary conference, students will be presenting and discussing their research projects at the conference ‘Student Research: Students Do Science’.

Further information is available online:
Anniversary conference programme and registration details

Contact: 
Prof. Dr Angelika Epple, Bielefeld University
Chairwoman of the Scientific Board for the anniversary academic programme
Telephone: +49 (0)521 106-3222
Email: angelika.epple@uni-bielefeld.de

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