Research, evaluation, analysis

The Science of Conjecture

The scientific research of the twentieth century has been heavily influenced by the ideas of Karl Popper. Another article on this site discusses his criterion of falsifiability, which transformed scientific investigation. In general, Popper convinced people that the goal of science was not, as earlier scientists had argued, to discover the truth, but rather to solve problems.

In general, though, the public still looks on science as the discovery of truth through observation. A scientist, in the popular mind, is someone who collects things and analyzes them. This view implies that the truth exists outside of us, and that we have to go find it without any preconceptions as to what it might be. As another article notes, though, in empirical science you can never prove that you have found the truth. Furthermore, as Popper argued, this view of science does not describe what scientists really do.

Scientists deal with a problem by speculating about what the solution could be and then criticizing their conjectures or hypotheses and allowing others to criticize them. One of the ways hypotheses are criticized is by conducting experimental tests with the goal of demonstrating that the hypothesis is false, which is a pretty conclusive criticism.

As Popper pointed out, a good solution may withstand criticism for some time, and provide good guidance in scientific practice, but eventually continued testing will find something wrong with it. We then come up with a new conjecture a modification of the old one, perhaps, or a completely new one and start testing it. Through continued criticism and testing our understanding increases, and we also discover new problems to work on.

Popper's view also corresponds with obvious facts about decisionmaking . Effective decisions need not remain effective forever, what was an effective decision last year may not be effective at all this year, and what was effective elsewhere need not be effective here. Decisionmakers need what Popper said scientists need critical acumen and inventiveness. And, as Popper also pointed out, the best way to get effective decisions is to make them in a public and competitive atmosphere in which decisionmakers are always open to questioning and suggestions. That does not mean that decisionmakers need relinquish authority, but it does mean that they will make their best decisions when they get to test and improve them in honest debate with others.

The Science of Conjecture © 2000, John FitzGerald
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