Problem-solving research

(Response to “Hypothesis-Overdrive”

While I agree with the critique of “hypothesis” by Glass and by Glass & Hall, I believe that basing research funded by the public dollar on “questions” misses the point. What intriques a researcher in the form of a question may be very hard to explain to a layperson, or even a colleague in the same field. I prefer to explain to my students that research proposals must be “problem-solving”. These are typically mechanistic or design/engineering or targeted description (essentially the same as Freedman’s taxonomy of research problems -Freedman, P. (1960). The Principles of Scientific Research. Oxford, Pergamon Press. ), but inevitably the solution to scientific problems involves all three modes of research. Problems are solved by proposed design, hypotheses or search strategies, all of three of which can be collected under the rubric of ‘testable solutions”. Hypotheses are tools for solving problems; and we should dispense with any hypothesis as soon as it no longer is helping us solve the problem. I would suggest that “questions” and “models” (more or elss as described by Glass and Hall) are also tools for problem solving. Scientists should love hypotheses or questions no more than a journeyman loves her hammer.
Now, I suggest, that anyone can come to understand a problem, even if they never understand the hypothesis. Now, problems can be posed as questions, but not all questions identify problems. “How does Toxoplasma infection cause mice to lose their fear of cats?,” refers to a problem but “Does Toxoplasma damage fear-processing neurons in the amygdala” refers to an hypothesis that MIGHT solve the problem. Similarly, we can identify a design-engineering problem as a question (“How can we send humans to Mars and bring them back alive”) or as a statement (“The problem is to send humans to Mars and bring them back alive”). Similarly, we can express the targetted description of the human genome as a questions (“What is the sequence of the human genome?”) or as a mechanistic question (“How can we explain the genetic basis of human disease?) or as search stragety (“Sequencing the human genome should reveals details critical to explaining the genetic basis of human disease”).

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