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Discuss - Hypothesis-driven vs. Exploratory science


Mokele
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Ok, open discussion time:

 

What should be considered "Science" and receive funding as such? Should the definition be restricted to 'pure' hypothesis-driven science? Or should it include 'exploratory' or 'discovery science', such as species surveys and the Human Genome Project? Even if such exploratory studies are valuable to science, that doesn't necessarily mean the studies themselves *are* science, or does it?

 

Have at it!

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Ok, open discussion time:

 

What should be considered "Science" and receive funding as such? Should the definition be restricted to 'pure' hypothesis-driven science? Or should it include 'exploratory' or 'discovery science', such as species surveys and the Human Genome Project? Even if such exploratory studies are valuable to science, that doesn't necessarily mean the studies themselves *are* science, or does it?

 

Have at it!

 

I would think that all such things are included in what we call science. Discovering a new species or planet automatically inspires questioning in a scientific mind about how it fits into the greater scheme of things. SETI, WMAP, and the LHC are doing basically what you describe and I defy you to explain to me how any of those are not science.

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Tough call. However even in the more exploratory sciences one does not usually limit oneself to mere observations. For instance genome sequences are not sold as naked sequences but at the very least derived information from these sequences (e.g. metabolic capabilities, comparative evolutionary analyses, etc.). I agree that mere observations are not necessarily science, however even projects that did not start out with hypotheses as such (this includes much in the omics field) can derive information once the data has been collected. It is generally harder to sell, though.

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I would think that all such things are included in what we call science. Discovering a new species or planet automatically inspires questioning in a scientific mind about how it fits into the greater scheme of things.

 

Just because something inspires scientific discovery doesn't make it science itself. To be a bit flippant, one of the most important fossil Australopithecus trackways was discovered by accident while the discoverers were throwing elephant dung at each other.

 

Why should the results determine whether it's science, rather than the method. Simply 'finding things' certainly isn't science, because anyone with the right equipment can stumble across something. The process of science, of checking and re-checking hypotheses, distinguishes it from other ways of investigating the world.

 

SETI, WMAP, and the LHC are doing basically what you describe and I defy you to explain to me how any of those are not science.

 

I'll pick on the LHC - the act of *building* the LHC wasn't science, but it will be used to perform hypothesis-driven scientific experiments.

 

I'm certainly not arguing that such things aren't useful, but rather what such endeavors are *called*.

 

However even in the more exploratory sciences one does not usually limit oneself to mere observations. For instance genome sequences are not sold as naked sequences but at the very least derived information from these sequences (e.g. metabolic capabilities, comparative evolutionary analyses, etc.). I agree that mere observations are not necessarily science, however even projects that did not start out with hypotheses as such (this includes much in the omics field) can derive information once the data has been collected. It is generally harder to sell, though.

 

Very true, but how much of this is because granting agencies want hypothesis-driven science, so to get funding, these projects need to at least pretend to be hypothesis driven? If we had more funding for purely exploratory science (which I think would be a good thing), would we still try to shoehorn them into the category of 'science' as opposed to something like 'science support'?

 

Mokele

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Well, IMO exploration and scientific advancement are inseparable. Science without exploration is simply philosophy. I guess it comes down to the motivations for doing the exploratory part. If you are doing it just to compile a cool list, it might be said to not be science but if you have a particular goal, like the notion that knowing how the human genome is sequenced might somehow be useful for many branches of science, I don't see how you can't call it science.

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Very true, but how much of this is because granting agencies want hypothesis-driven science, so to get funding, these projects need to at least pretend to be hypothesis driven? If we had more funding for purely exploratory science (which I think would be a good thing), would we still try to shoehorn them into the category of 'science' as opposed to something like 'science support'?

 

Good point. However at least those areas which have demonstrated to further sciences just by providing data (like e.g. genome sequencing or biodiversity projects) do get funding. However rarely individual funding but rather within large, say, genomic clusters. On the other hand, within those projects generally at least a proposal must be given why these particular organisms might be of interest.

Even science support should have at least a rationale behind it, even if it is no directly aimed at solving a particular question. And at that point the border between "support" and science proper becomes fuzzy. In my opinion at least.

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Well, IMO exploration and scientific advancement are inseparable. Science without exploration is simply philosophy.

 

Exploration can be hypothesis-driven, however. For instance, I could hypothesize that a particular animal group arose from another group at around time X, and predict that if I dig in sediments at location Y of age X, I'll find an intermediate species.

 

I guess it comes down to the motivations for doing the exploratory part. If you are doing it just to compile a cool list, it might be said to not be science but if you have a particular goal, like the notion that knowing how the human genome is sequenced might somehow be useful for many branches of science, I don't see how you can't call it science.

 

The problem with motivation is who decides what's cool enough or useful enough? Does it depend on species? How big is the field? The extremes are easy, but what about the middle? Who makes the call? And can you make that call in an objective manner?

 

Mokele

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What about the Moon landing? A lot of science went into making it possible, and it resulted in a lot of data that could be studied scientifically, but was it technically "science" itself?

 

I guess science makes new forms of exploration possible, and gives us an indication as to good directions to explore, and the exploration itself results in data that can be scientifically analyzed to advance science.

 

 

I get what you are saying about hypothesis driven science, but I think if the hypothesis is as simple as "we should find out a bunch of stuff we didn't know before by doing this" and makes a sound case then it is worth consideration for scientific funding.

 

As long as the reasoning for the expectation of fruitful exploration is scientifically sound, I think it could fall into that camp.

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  • 2 years later...

A lot of topics seem to get mixed up in this debate. Science is an iterative process of observation and hypothesis, that seeks answers to questions about the natural world. Depending on the topic and the state of the art, it may be more productive to engage in either exploratory, experimental, or theoretical activities.

 

Landing on the moon was obviously much more than just a scientific activity. Indeed, Kennedy launched the moon program as a cultural, political and technological race with the Soviet Union. Science was not the primary consideration, other than the science of sustaining human flight to the moon. To be sure Astronauts have conducted a lot of scientific experiments on the moon and in space, so their activities have always been a mixture of scientific and non-scientific activities.

 

The more pragmatic question usually boils down to whether a particular activity is the best use of scientific funding. Indeed, the debate of the merits of exploratory or hypothesis driven work can be most strident in the funding arena. Areas which have recently experienced a technological breakthrough often benefit from exploratory science since there is an abundance of "low hanging fruit". Scientists can be like a bunch of kids at an easter egg hunt. Once the easy to find eggs have been snapped up, then shifting to a more thoughtful or analytical approach is likely to be more productive. It isn't really possible to separate science from other cultural phenomenon. Support for scientific studies, or determining their significance usually involves value judgements. For example, biologists frequently justify their work based on the implications for human health.

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Hmm, possibly we should fund an elephant dung catapult? Lots of discoveries have been made while doing other things, pure science should be funded I think but simple exploration has given many rewards as well. .

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The problem with motivation is who decides what's cool enough or useful enough? Does it depend on species? How big is the field? The extremes are easy, but what about the middle? Who makes the call? And can you make that call in an objective manner?

 

Grant review panels at the NSF and NIH, composed of experts in the research area of the grant submissions, don't seem to have any problem making these decisions. If an application that proposes to explore something just to see what is going on looks interesting and has potential to encourage further research, the experts make pretty good decisions.

 

Along the lines of others above, I am loath to say that Darwin's or Golgi's many years of observation were not science. It seems to me that that careful and objective observations recorded and synthesized into something sensible, and published for others to replicate or build on is science at its best. In my own area, many lines of active research originally started with an "I wonder what is going on here" question, or was an accidental discovery. SM

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Reviews are out of necessity of course subjective, the goal of a grant proposal is to convince by demonstrating impact, feasibility, resources (that are not dependent on funding), personnel, etc. Obviously it also takes the track record of the applicant into account. That being said, grants that are essentially fishing expeditions are mostly dead in the water. You have to be able to propose a hypothesis that you want to test, or provide preliminary information regarding what may be a possible outcome, before it has a chance to go to review.

 

Also, as a side note, this thread is bloody old.

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CharonY, my point is that grant reviewers are quite capable of making decisions regarding what is fishing and what is promising exploration.

 

Regarding your comment about the old thread. It is always amusing to bring this up to tease those of us who begin commenting on an old thread. So, do you think this issue was settled in December '08, and do you think that MatthewF, who apparently was reading in the archives and found something interesting to comment on, was inappropriate in posting? SM

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CharonY, my point is that grant reviewers are quite capable of making decisions regarding what is fishing and what is promising exploration.

 

Regarding your comment about the old thread. It is always amusing to bring this up to tease those of us who begin commenting on an old thread. So, do you think this issue was settled in December '08, and do you think that MatthewF, who apparently was reading in the archives and found something interesting to comment on, was inappropriate in posting? SM

If someone would like to raise a topic for discussion, and they find it already's been discussed in another thread, yet they have more to say about it, why shouldn't they re-open the old thread? Would it be better to start a new thread with the same or slightly altered premise?

 

What I don't get is whether the thread is/was more about the relative value of these two approaches to science generally, or about which one deserves or needs more funding and why? I think I'll start a new thread on the economic basis and effects of funding science.

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