29 September 2014

Multiple Working Hypotheses

In exploring Arctic ice minima I was not so much trying to reach conclusions as to find hypotheses for further testing and exploration.  Let's pick up the hypotheses side now, as I think it gets much too little attention in science education and science student practice.  In saying that, I'm projecting my bias, of course.

Part of that bias comes from having read and agreed with T. C. Chamberlin's Method of Multiple Hypotheses (1890).  Or at least liked my take on it.  It also has some correspondence to John Stuart Mill's ideas in On Liberty about a marketplace of ideas (1859), which I also liked.  The crux is, if we consider only one idea/hypothesis we are liable to be overly protective of it, or overly hostile to it.  Either way, we do not arrive at the best hypothesis for continued work.  Chances of us having started by selecting the best of all possible hypotheses, out of the infinity which could be generated, are essentially zero.

So, instead of starting with:
  • Observe
  • Make a hypothesis about those observations
  • Make a prediction from that hypothesis
  • Run an experiment to test the hypothesis
We try something more like:
  • Observe
  • Make multiple hypotheses that explain the observations
  • Examine the hypotheses for how/where/when they lead to different predictions
  • Run an experiment to distinguish between stronger and weaker hypotheses
A different take, or at least a different discussion, of the method of multiple working hypotheses is by L. Bruce Railsback