Monday, July 6, 2009

Increasing our scientific productivity (but writing less papers)

There is a article in Science that I have now read three times and am wrestling with. I reproduce a few quotations below:
Strong inference consists of applying the following steps to every problem in science, formally and explicitly and regularly:

1) Devising alternative hypotheses;
2) Devising a crucial experiment (or several of them), with alternative possible outcomes, each of which will, as nearly as possible, exclude one or more of the hypotheses;
3) Carrying out the experiment so as to get a clean result;
1') recycling the procedure, making subhypotheses or sequential hypotheses to refine the possibilities that remain; and so on.
"But what is so novel about this?" someone will say. This is the the method of science and always has been; why give it a special name? The reason is that many of us have almost forgotten it. Science is now an everyday business. Equipment, calculations, lectures, become ends in themselves. ... we do busywork. We become "method-oriented" rather than "problem" oriented. .. We fail to teach our students how to sharpen up their inductive inferences.
Whether it is hand-waving or number-waving or equation-waving, a theory is not a theory unless it can be disproved.

[but a single hypothesis is difficult to disprove. Furthermore,]
"our trouble is that when we make a single hypothesis, we become attached to it"

[this is why] some great scientists are so disputatious

To avoid this grave danger [of people being attached to theories], the method of multiple working hypotheses is urged. It differs from the simple working hypothesis in that it distributes the effort and divides the affections.

[Examples are given from Faraday, Roentgen, Fermi, Watson & Crick, and Pasteur]
these men believed in the effectiveness of daily steps in applying formal inductive methods to one problem after another

[we should all] devote a half hour or an hour to analytical thinking every day, writing out the logical tree and the alternatives and crucial experiments explicitly in a permanent notebook.
The article is by John R. Platt, a distinguished molecular spectroscopist from the University of Chicago. It was published in 1965, but seems just as relevant and important today!

I welcome comments, and especially examples of multiple hypotheses.

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