Strong Inference: rationale or inspiration?

Rowland H. Davis
2006 Perspectives in biology and medicine  
John Platt's article "Strong Inference" (1964) suggested a general and effective method of scientific investigation. It describes a disciplined strategy of falsification of multiple, clearly formulated hypotheses that is used more regularly in some scientific fields than in others. Platt urged that strong inference be more widely and more systematically applied, particularly in slower-moving fields of science.The article has influenced integrative biological fields since its publication,
more » ... from ecology to psychology, and has had a substantial following in some of the social sciences. It has also evoked severe criticism for its idealization of certain fields as exemplars and for its imperfections in historiography and philosophy of science. I argue here that the article was more an inspirational tract than the development of a formal scientific methodology. Although both Platt's critics and his adherents appeared to take the article far too seriously, its influence has transcended its limitations. spring 2006 • volume 49, number 2 239 ises rapid progress in scientific investigations. Platt wrote vividly and slyly, and he capitalized on the chagrin of slower fields in his subtitle:"Certain systematic methods of scientific thinking may produce much more rapid progress than others." Early in the paper, he described the strategy of "Strong Inference": the scientist must construct two or more falsifiable hypotheses that might explain a phenomenon; devise crucial experiments to eliminate one or more of them; carry out the experiments to obtain decisive results; then "recycle" the process to eliminate subsidiary hypotheses. Platt disclaimed any novelty for these prescriptions, saying only that fast-moving fields are characterized by their more systematic application. Platt's rhetoric was exemplary in several respects. First, he subtly cited examples of the effectiveness of strong inference from molecular biology, chemistry, and atomic physics, leaving readers with the notion (although he did not actually claim it to be true) that the rationale was generally applicable. Second, he identified a difference: some fields are populated by researchers who measure and refine, while others ask important "questions" in the form of falsifiable hypotheses. Investigators of the first type simply seek verification and exactness; those in the second seek to make bold advances or challenge the current wisdom. A third rhetorical device was to derive authority for his argument by saying that strong inference is nothing but standard inductive logic.This rationale had been proposed formally in the 17th century by Francis Bacon, and again in 1897 by the geologist T.
doi:10.1353/pbm.2006.0022 pmid:16702707 fatcat:ewh3zfnobvg43huaeizqqaa53q