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The Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses

by Thomas C. Chamberlin

A Commentary by Thomas M. Zinnen

From the title of this essay, I learned to ask not "What's your hypothesis?" but rather ask "What are the testable predictions of your competing hypotheses?" Anybody can have one hypothesis. The challenge is in generating several hypotheses that predict different outcomes that are testable in experiment.

Multiple is the key: not just one hypothesis, but two, or even better, several competing hypotheses, are ideal. 'Working' emphasizes the tentative nature of them all: they're designed to be tested, not coddled.

The title is pregnant, the subtitle is elegant. "Parental affection for a favorite theory" can cripple an inquiry.

Chamberlin, a geologist, wrote this essay in the 1890's. To my ears it sounds late Victorian. But Mark Twain was writing at this time, so pith and wit were possible.

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Chamberlin lays out his thesis that the method of multiple working hypotheses is useful in "investigation, instruction and citizenship" or roughly equal to a common phrase describing the functions of public universities: 'research, teaching and service'.

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Chamberlin strikes a recurrent theme, a two-pronged fork in education: Aristotle and Socrates; The encyclopedist and the inquisitor; The answer and the question.

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An irony: while science is supposedly about "the known" it is to Chamberlin more interestingly viewed as the process of making the unknown known. Science is not omniscience. And research is far more interesting in fields where there's much left to be discovered.

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Ever open-minded, Chamberlin describes three phases of intellectual methods "thus far" and anticipates there will be more. Now one hundred years later, one could ask: has the 20th century produced further phases?

This also illustrates the difficulty of talking about "the scientific method." Even a century ago there was no single "method" of scientific inquiry. But Chamberlin asks a key point: what are the strengths and weaknesses of various methods of doing science?

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Expectation of omniscience has been a heavy burden. It can lead to "Explainaholism" a nasty disease. You'll see it a lot on TV science shows and in museums. Rarely will someone with Explainaholism really explain several competing ideas. No, the earth goes around the sun and suffice it to show only evidence that supports that correct conclusion.

Generating an explanation is not a problem. The problem is when the emphasis is on "interpretation" rather than testable prediction. This is the difference between scrutiny by reason, and testing by experiment.

Premature Theories

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Is there a distinction between "tentative hypotheses" and "tentative theories"? Chamberlin's states that "It is not the slowness...but the thoroughness" of the investigation that is the key quality of the scrutiny.

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Chamberlin warns of coddling the toddling new explanation in a gem of a phrase: "pressing of the theory to make it fit the facts to make them fit the theory."

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An agricultural allusion from a time when the country was still primarily agricultural. To winnow chaff from the grain the mixture is tossed in the air, and the lighter chaff is blown away by the wind while the heavier grain returns to the winnow basket. To sift dust from the grain both are passed over a screen that allows the dust to fall through but retains the grain. (This differential stepwise treatment is analogous to many methods of biochemical purification.) This approach to epistemology assumes that truth exists and humans merely discover it. Another approach is that humans generate truth.

Ruling Theories Linger

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Rather than coddle an idea, he suggests another tack. Like a civil engineer testing the earthquake-resistance of a model building, you gotta "Shake It Til You Break It" in order to learn anything.

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Here the idea of tangible is key. Tangible comes from the Latin 'tangere' meaning "to touch." I take it to mean "testable by experiment." One can argue ad nauseum how to answer "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" because angels are intangible. When scientists started to wrestle with natural phenomena, with things empirical, then the power of combining Experience with the Mental allowed the beginning of the ExperiMental Approach to Testing Ideas.

Chamberlin introduces the theme of the freedom to inquire and alludes to repression of the freedom. He does not state whether the repression came from academics or from politicians or from religious leaders. One can find examples in recent history for each.

A century ago Chamberlin offers a lament familiar to many students: "The vitality of study quickly disappears when the object sought is a mere collocation of dead unmeaning facts."

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Chamberlin compares and contrasts the approach of the "ruling theory" to that of "the working hypothesis." In one phrase the difference between "support" and "test" is key: are facts to be found to support the theory, or to test the theory? This may be parallel to the distinction between trying to "prove" a theory compared to trying to "disprove" it.

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A Family of Hypotheses

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Having only one hypothesis means it can rather easily slip into being a "controlling idea." Encouraging several competing ideas reduces this tendency. This avoids the 'parental preference' that Chamberlin claims scientists would give to a sole hypothesis.

Chamberlin also points out that having multiple competing hypotheses makes more sense in those complex cases where several factors may work in concert to generate an effect or phenomena.

While Chamberlin gives a geological example, biologists can imagine a multi-factor situation such as a biochemical reaction sensitive to temperature and pH involving two reactants and a co-enzyme and its cofactor.

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"Whet the discriminative edge" of each hypothesis: a phrase that may allude to "Occam's Razor": when faced with two or more explanations that fit the available evidence, one should prefer the simplest explanation. This is also called the preference for parsimony.

Ironically, the words "science" and "scissors" are both related to the Greek word "schizo" meaning "to split." Chamberlin alludes to science as scissors: two blades of inquiry are better than one for cutting into the unknown.

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Ah, the power of simultaneous vision from several standpoints. Stereoscopic vision for the mind for multidimensional probing. Chamberlin makes a bold claim: experimental science can be both analytical and synthetic, what we might call today both reductionist and holistic.

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We speak one word at a time even while our minds imagine a dozen dawning ideas simultaneously. How can one share these ideas without a hopeless tangle of dangling phrases? Chamberlin alludes to maturity, patience and practice as keys to communication. But we can start by choosing our questions carefully. You can ask "What's your hypothesis?" and encourage students to think of only one possible explanation. Or you can ban the singular and always ask "What are your hypotheses?" and thus model and encourage students to consider many possible explanations.

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In viewing the field of "science education" one could get the impression that there is One Right Way to teach kids and We Are Going to Find It. A century ago Chamberlin laments this monorail mindset. If musicians need a wide repertoire, to Chamberlin teachers need "a full array" of ways to approach different learners with different states of mind.

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Chamberlin contends that having but one idea leads to preconceived notions and misperceived evidence. He asserts that the mindset of multiple competing hypotheses should be applied in social and civic life--to our personal choices and our public policies.

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