About a month ago, we were told that theory is dead. That was the thesis of Chris Anderson’s article in Wired. Rather than testing hypotheses using the scientific method, Anderson argues that scientists are merely generating loads of data and looking for correlations and stuff. The article was a bit muddled, but that’s Anderson’s main point . . . I think.
Well, now the Times Higher Education has published an article by Tim Birkhead in which he argues the opposite (In praise of fishing trips). Birkhead says that the scientific establishment is too attached to hypothesis testing. This means funding agencies are reluctant to approve projects that are designed to collect data without testing a priori hypotheses. Here’s the brunt of his argument:
The scientific research councils seem to be obsessed by hypothesis testing. Many times I have heard it said by referees rejecting a proposal: “But there was no hypothesis.” The research council modus operandi now seems to be the h-d method, but taken to an almost ludicrous extreme – researchers basically have to know what they are going to find before putting in a research application (in truth, they need to have done the research, even though they will not actually say so, to write a convincing account of what they intend to do). That’s hardly the best way of doing science. The other problem, and it is a much more serious one, is that by knowing what you will find out, science becomes trivially confirmatory and inherently unlikely to discover anything truly novel.
So, which one is it? Have we abandoned hypothesis testing? Or are we so attached to hypothesis testing that we overlook novel projects that would explore underdeveloped areas of research?