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The Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses

This morning, a Geology professor presented one of her assignments to this workshop that I’m attending, and one concept jumped out at me. She said that one of the things that makes Geology difficult for freshmen is that all evidence can be interpreted in multiple ways (Sound familiar? It sure does to me from both my Literature and my LIS backgrounds). Turns out, this was articulated as a philosophy of studying Geology back in 1897 when T. C. Chamberlin published his ideas about The Theory of Multiple Working Hypotheses.

Holding more than one hypothesis in your head leads to “certain distinctive habits of mind,” particularly thinking critically about each hypothesis and being more thorough in looking at the range of potential evidence (845-846). The idea is that if you don’t get attached to one theory, you won’t fall into the trap of only seeing or “lingering with great pleasure” on the evidence that fits that theory (840). You’ll also always have to confront the issue that one or the other of your hypotheses might not stand the test of research, which forces you to constantly evaluate each one’s validity.

This strikes me as exactly what I’ve struggled to articulate to my students who come to me with research questions for which they’d really just like to find some articles from which to pull supporting quotations. Whether the questions are overly simple (how better to know that you’ll find supporting evidence?) or impractically difficult, my students really aren’t interested in evidence that complicates their projects. (The major exception being those who feel they should find at least one source that definitively and categorically disagrees with them, in order to tear it to pieces while demonstrating that they’ve considered counter arguments. But this is not really holding a counter-hypothesis in mind.)

If I can get students to entertain the possibility of at least temporarily holding another hypothesis in mind, perhaps they’d be more thorough in their research, and perhaps they’d be more able to take a critical look at what they’ve found.

Of course, I should note that Chamberlin identifies a couple of disadvantage to this approach. First, it’s not something that “young scholars” can do very well (848). (Hmmm… that seems to include my entire audience.) And second, you can’t express “more than a single line of thought at the same time” (857). In other words, in the middle of our lightning fast 10-week term, I’d be asking them to entertain the possibility of doing a bunch of research that wouldn’t contribute directly to their final product. That’ll go over like a lead pipe to the head.

Still, I wonder if there’s a way to be more conscious about this as a method of thinking while acknowledging that it is not entirely practical for my students.

Chamberlin, T. C. “Studies for Students: The Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses.” The Journal of Geology 5.8 (1897): 837-848. [Available via JSTOR]