QotD: Darwin on why hypotheses matter

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I sat in on a grad seminar the other day that presented lots of data, and whose “Goals” slide started with the words “To find out if….”. Much of the resulting input from the audience was of the sort: “Could your data suggest that..?”.

Reminds me of a story. A critic said that Darwin, in writing Origin, should have just “put his facts before us and let them rest”.

Darwin replied

“About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorize, and I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!”

The best science is communicated as a narrative, a voyage of discovery, that presents your data in the light of different cool hypotheses.

That’s three parts to communicating science.

Data and hypothesis without a narrative ignores the fact that humans learn from stories.

Data and narrative without hypotheses is like watching a slide show from a stranger’s cross-country trip (“Where is this going fercryin’ out loud!?”).

Hypotheses and narrative without data is like an evening listening to free verse.

h/t Michael Shermer, Scientific American, October 2007

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5 Responses to QotD: Darwin on why hypotheses matter

  1. meg says:

    Medieval studies is still struggling out from under the 19th-century injunctions to Just Observe. Unfortunately, that means going through a stage of denigrating all information-intensive research as “mere stamp-collecting.”

  2. Mike says:

    Lord Kelvin said “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.”.
    I suspect Lord Kelvin was a bit of a dick.
    I’m just sayin’. ;-)
    I cannot believe that any science is so young that it is hypothesis-free. At the very least, I cannot believe that any science is so young that its practitioners don’t recognize the underlying currents in the field, such that good, standardized data do not favor one view over the other.
    Our data should be collected “tabla rasa”. Its *impact* should be aimed at sweeping away false notions as to how the world works.

  3. Jason says:

    I grasp that data & facts matter in science . . . but what’s wrong with “listening to free verse” for a night?

  4. Mike says:

    Nothing at all, actually, which is why I presented it the way I did. I rather admire the audacity of a good theory talk. They are rare nowadays, where folks in EEB at least often apologize before showing an equation. Funny, the ramifications of allowing “Physics for the Life Sciences” to pass for a biologist’s training.
    One of my mentors, Peter Yodzis, was a master of a gripping seminar on the development of an intriguing idea. No pretty pictures. Just gorgeous ideas, developed, piece by piece, by a master.

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