cj#735> Some notes on scientific inquiry: the role of hypothesis

1997-11-20

Richard Moore

Dear cj,

Some very thoughful responses to "Who is the enemy?" have been coming in
from readers, a livelier than usual debate seems to be in store.  I'll be
continuing that thread soon, but in the meantime I'd like share this essay
on inquiry itself, an apologia for the methodology I find absolutely
invaluable.

rkm

---

>To: cyber-rights, wsn:


In the past few days, serendipitously, various people on these list have
directly challenged my methods of argument, referring to "leaps" and
"thought experiments", and complaining of "research and reading gaps".  I'm
glad this came up, because I'm quite happy to say a few words about my
methods of investigation.  Indeed more attention to meta-inquiry seems
appropriate in a medium so heavily trafficked by debate and theorizing.


My activity on Internet can be characterized as an investigation into
various questions, together with an investigation into techniques of
effective presentation.

The net is a perfect medium for such pursuits -- it is an Athenian Academy
writ large, peopled with countless articulate philosophers and experts of
every conceivable stripe, with varying levels of discernment, and espousing
a wide range of traditional, popular, and innovative viewpoints.  At each
stage of an investigation one can find diverse critics ready and able to
exhaustively dispute any current hypotheses or argument.  This convenient
and energetic forum enables rapid and economical refinment of ones ideas.

As regards "gaps in reading and research": The scope of my ongoing print
reading and research is considerable, but not nearly as extensive as my
interests.  If I tried to read all relevant periodicals and academic works,
the rest of my life would be spent in a library, there would always be one
more doubt to settle, and the time to write would never come.

With Internet, there's a faster method of learning, a method that can keep
pace with the development of my thinking -- that method is simply the
process of online debate.  If I want to find out how historians would rebut
my latest argument, it is quicker to present the argument to the wsn list
and await the flames than it is to read all the historical treatises.  This
process is a form of collaborative investigation -- the investigation draws
on the collective knowledge of the community of participants, even if most
of them are motivated by other objectives.

Rebutters are my teachers, and reasoned refutations are valued; they may
resent that I haven't read their particular recommended books, but if
they're going to play on the net they shouldn't object to explaining in
net-common terminology what may to them seem obvious.

Internet, employed as I've described, is uniquely potent in accelerating
the development of hypotheses, especially when those hypotheses range over
many traditional disciplines.  And hypotheses are at the center of my
formal investigative methods -- methods, by the way, that are on a
completely sound scientifc basis.

My formal background is in mathematics (including logic), and math is the
subject that most systematically develops the topic of "proof".  It was
Euclid's geometry, for example, that first attempted to formalize the
principles of deductive reasoning.  Math doesn't really have any data; it
only has its models and its proofs to play with.  Philosophers may excel in
analyzing such methods, but mathematicians are among the most proficient in
applying the methods -- it's like the difference between art historians and
artists.

It was the facility of proof and argument that I took away from math; I
never cared much about abelian groups or differential equations.

The first step in my method (and none of this is unique or original) is
formally called INDUCTIVE HYPOTHESIS GENERATION.  This is nothing more than
guessing based on observation: What explanation _seems_ to fit the facts?
The tenative explanation might be original, or it might be borrowed, but if
it is borrowed the authority of the source plays no further role -- it is
the hypothesis itself that one works with.  Hypothesis generation is the
process a police detective goes through after examining the initial
evidence in a case.

Once an hypothesis is under consideration, investigation then proceeds
along three threads in parallel.  The first thread is to look for EVIDENCE
for or against the hypothesis; the second thread is to EXPLORE the
conditional consequences of the hypothesis (What would follow _if_ it were
true?); the third thread is to REFINE the statement and presentation of the
hypothesis itself (like the detective developing the presentation for the
prosecution).  The three threads, it turns out, reinforce one another.

The first thread is formally called "HYPOTHESIS TESTING", the second "the
ANALYTIC METHOD", and the third "PUBLICATION" (:>) .  Pursuit of these
threads turns out to be highly productive: either the hypothesis is rapidly
demolished by Internet detractors, which allows attention to be turned
elsewhere, or else the hypothesis gains rapidly in refinement,
substantance, and notoriety.

As example, some of my current hypotheses are:
   (1)  "The telecom system will rapidly evolve into a digital, high-
        bandwidth network, capable of delivering full two-way video to each
        user."

   (2)  "The mass-media industry will seek to use the telecomm network as
        its primary delivery channel as soon as such becomes operationally
        feasible."

   (3)  "The global capitalist elite have learned how to act coherently
        in their collective interests; they see those interests as being
        distinct from those of the nation-state; globalization has become
        the elite's vehicle for systematically furthering their interests."

These turn out to be very fruitful hypotheses: they are humble enough that
thread one (validation) is not beyond the scope of reasonable endeavor
(indeed many serious observers believe these hypotheses are already
conclusively established), and yet they are bold enough that thread two
(exploring consequences) leads to very significant and non-obvious
observations, worth publishing in thread three.

But to some on our lists, the mere consideration of such hypotheses seems
an unwarranted "leap".  Such people have an impoverished scientific
repertoire; they are imprisoned within the limitations of the deductive
method: they want to consider proven facts and generally accepted beliefs
only, and then they'll be happy to deduce and extrapolate conclusions from
them.

Such people seem not to realize that most of the scientific facts and
principles they now take for granted, and are comfortable in reasoning
from, could never have been discovered by the deductive method alone, nor
by sticking to accepted beliefs.  Galileo, Darwin, Freud, Kepler,
Descartes, Marx, Newton, and Einstein, to name a few, developed and
employed the hypothesis-driven methodology I'm using, and I'm happy to
borrow from them.  They demonstrated conclusively that bold hypotheses, if
astutely chosen and systematically pursued, can dramatically accelerate the
advance of human understanding.

To flesh out the methodology just a bit more, let's look at hypothesis (2)
re/ the mass-media and cyberspace.  Note that without the hypothesis, there
would be no reason to focus on the questions below; the value of the
hypothesis lies in its ability to optimally focus the investigator's
attention.  Knee-jerk refusal to consider such hypothesis at all puts one
in the position (and philosophical vintage) of the Scholastics who refused
to look through Galileo's telescope.

Thread one, evidence-seeking, leads to such questions as:
        - How does the mass-media industry operate?  Who owns it?
        - What is their business model?  How deep are their pockets?
        - How do they conceptualize their marketplace?
        - How do they manage their distribution currently?
        - What are their market and product trends?
        - Where are they looking for future revenue growth?
        - How are they responding to new technologies?
        - How quickly do they learn and adapt?
        - What is their corporate culture?  How pioneering are they?
        - What do we know about their actual plans and intentions?
        - What positions are they taking on regulatory issues?

The evidence to which these questions have led me turns out to be
considerable, arugably conclusive.  However it is not surprising that many
serious Internet observers (on and off our lists) have not come to these
same conclusions -- that's simply because they haven't been examining the
evidence with the right questions in mind.  They may be more familiar with
the overall room than I am, but they're overlooking a surprisingly
significant corner, a corner which my hypothesis has guided me to examine
closely.


Thread two, exploring consequences, indicates such questions as:
        - How does the mass-media business model map onto digital networking?
        - What would be their likely game-plan in pursing their business
          objectives in cyberspace?
        - What other players and game-plans that are likely to be involved?
        - What are the relative strengths of the players?
        - What are everyone's likely lobbying agendas?
        - How do those agendas fit with general directions in
          government policy?
        - How are the ownership and regulatory shakeouts likely to unfold?
        - What does that imply regarding the economic and regulatory
          regime likely to be adopted for cyberspace?
        - What uses can be anticipated from the technology itself, based on its
          ability to reliably and cost-effectively connect arbitrary points
          with high-bandwidth channels?

As challenging as this second set of questions appears to be, it is not
really all that intractible.  It has more variables and contingincies than
the first set, but the players aren't that difficult to identify, their
agendas are not deeply hidden, their initial game moves are already in
evidence, and ample precedents exist in previous technological revolutions
from which informed lessons can be drawn.  Anticipation of a Big Brother,
mass-media dominated cyberspace is not itself a "leap", it rather is a
well-reasoned most-likely outcome of the scenario indicated by the
hypothesis.  The only "leaps" are in the assumptions that cyberspace will
be built, that the mass-media will jump in and play, and that neoliberal
policies will continue to dominate politically.

If thread two is inadequately developed in the literature, that is only
because the hypotheses has not been sufficiently entertained.  Under the
serious assumption of an aggressive mass-media policy, the fundamental
cyberspace picture falls into place surprisingly readily.

It would be a mistake to delay the difficult exploration thread until after
the hypothesis is proven -- that would be artificially serializing a
learning process that can naturally proceed with productive paralellism.

You might say an hypothesis has both CREDIBILITY and IMPORTANCE.  Thread
one seeks to establish credibility; thread two seeks to establish
importance -- and in the end thread three presents the two investigations
together as one piece of work, which can then finally be offered even to
the deductionist extrapolators amongst us.

For those who appreciate the method, and who can successfully switch their
mental assumptions as they switch threads, all three threads are equally
interesting and offer opportunities for productive participation.

But for those who can't appreciate the method, participation is typically
limited to an unproductive finger which points at thread one: noting with
dull repitition whatever doubts still remain regarding the base hypothesis.


Unfortunate.


regards,
rkm

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Posted by Richard K. Moore - •••@••.••• -  PO Box 26, Wexford, Ireland
         www.iol.ie/~rkmoore/cyberjournal                   (USA Citizen)
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                                America_&_NWO
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