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  • Writer's pictureCarlos Mauricio Díaz Nissen

The hammer, the anvil, and the hypothesis

Metaphors are amazing ways to approach our reality and to describe it in an intuitive way that allows us to relate it with concrete everyday realities.

Some days ago, I was thinking about how scientists use hypotheses in the current world, and how much misunderstanding and misuse is out there on how hypotheses work. I am a bit too Popperian, even for my taste. Therefore, I am of the idea that a hypothesis is just a good question that a scientist wants to try and test, not to find it to be true, but to find if it is correct and under which circumstances.

Then it came to my mind something my husband told me some years ago, of how this Danish king ordered the smiths of the kingdom to create cannons for the war. But due to the big amount of cannons and the necessity of quick production, the smiths were becoming lousy, which in turn made the cannons fragile, and created lots of 'friendly fire' casualties. Seeing this, the king proclaimed that every smith should sit in their cannon the first time it was fired, so if it exploded due to the lack of commitment, it was the lousy smith's life at stake and not that of his army. Then, as you would expect, there were no more problems with cannons exploding and causing casualties inside the lines.

Hypotheses work a bit like that. Imagine your hypothesis is a sword: You come up with an idea, choose the materials, put it into fire, and give it shape. But when it is ready, you don't know if it can stand a battle; you don't want it to break in the middle of the battle and let your soldier unarmed.

So you call another blacksmith and ask them to hit your sword in cold with a stronger hammer, or against another surface than the anvil, and see if the sword keeps its shape. If it does, it is great, you throw it into the battle pretty certain that it won't fail it's user. If it breaks, you choose other materials, or other temperature, and re-start the process.

It might be that the sword breaks during battle. In that case you take the broken sword, think where things can go wrong, and start the process again, always to find a method to forge stronger swords.

But it might also be that your sword works perfectly during summer, when the temperature is 30 degrees, but during winter when the temperature is 10 degrees below zero the sword tends to break. Then you might want to create two sets of swords, ones for summer and ones for winter (a set of alternative contextual hypotheses). Or you might call the smith Occam and try forging a better sword that can take all the range of temperatures (Remember that Occam says that the most simple, elegant, and comprehensive hypothesis is normally the best one). From a scientific perspective, this might take a lot of time, iterations, and scientists working on a specific topic.

However, scientists are currently pressed to publish by journals that only value novel hypotheses, many times guided by economic or political interests. This pressure makes puts them in the same perspective as the cannon smiths: They create something pushed by the pressure, and when it fails, then they jump and create a trebuchet so they can start the next batch of production, and when that fails, they will go for a catapult, and so and so. Very few times scientists are forced to sit on their cannons and test their hypothesis, because what is prised is quantity and not quality.

In fact, they produce so many cannons that not all of them are used, so no one can tell they are broken. Even more, the 'kings' (in this case, the publication environment) many times do not allow to test the cannons because they prefer to have different models of cannons than to test a specific set (valuing the novelty of studies and/or ignoring replications).

I invite you, then, to try to challenge the current model. To sin on your hypotheses and try them the first time you fire them. To hit your sword with different hammers at different temperatures to see if they break, and continue working on stronger swords. To call other smiths and let them hit your sword and break it, and to help you tempering it so it doesn't break in the future.

This is falsification, and lies at the core of good scientific practices. Do not make a hypothesis about why the sky is blue, but about under which circumstances it is blue!

Remember, real science is not a competition, it is a common and constant search for truths. To do this we need to cooperate.

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