September 28, 2011

By jleffron



Posted In

Learning, Rigour


Critically Flawed

We have met the enemy and he is us.

Multiple Working Hypotheses vs Pet Theories

It was “smackdown” time in my brain last week. I fell into the situation quite innocently.

When I’m working to create change, or to build something new, it’s easy to become so busy being the ‘champion’ for my project (or ‘evangelist’, if you like) that I forget the need for Multiple Working Hypotheses.*  This is understandable.  If I decide to work very hard to develop “B” in response to flaws in “A”; my (non-objective) gut feeling is that I’m fixing things. I start to feel like “A” and “B” are the only games in town; I’ve done something good here by replacing erroneous “A” with meritorious “B”. But it could well be that “B” is as flawed as “A”. If “A” is ‘wrong’; and “B” is different from “A”, it does not necessarily follow that “B” is ‘right’, only that “B” is not “A”. To do my work well, I really need to consider (create, if necessary) “C”, “D”, and possibly “E”.

This reality hit me smack between the eyes at about 7:00 on Saturday morning. Right up until that moment, I’d seen the my pet project of several months as this lovely shiny solution. But as I stood in the kitchen, waiting for the coffee to finish brewing, every weakness of my approach became clear to me.  The fact that another approach was problematic in some areas did not make mine right, even if I felt I was addressing a particular set of flaws in the old approach.  I’d become my own worst enemy – lack of critical thought left my project critically flawed.

It’s tough to not become enamoured with a particular theory or approach, and that’s where Multiple Working Hypotheses come in handy. Having more than one working hypothesis not only cuts back on things like confirmation bias, it makes for stronger research.  Entertaining multiple theories leaves my mind open to new connections often by pushing me to examine a wider body of data or evidence. If I don’t have a pet theory I’m nurturing along, I’m more open to new insights and surprising (but true) conclusions.

I’m back to the drawing board with my project. It’s not a blank slate, by any means.   The work I did before still has merit but it was only a partial view of the whole picture.  So I have a bigger drawing board now, with lots of room to examine a wider set of ideas. A little dose of objectivity diverted my work; the end result will be much stronger for that diversion.





* It wasn’t until I started writing this that it occurred to me that the concept of Multiple Working Hypotheses, coming from the work of a 19th century geologist, was commonly known in Geology departments, but not something I’ve heard much discussed in other disciplines.



  • Paul Simbeck-Hampson said on October 27, 2011

    Inspired by your gut reflection and really happy that you had that shining moment: ‘three steps back’ to move ‘four steps forward’ – go get’em Janet :)

  • jleffron said on October 27, 2011

    Thanks, Paul!

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