Friday, April 04, 2008

Shadow Stabbing #8: Compulsion

I'm rather pleased with this week's YouTube video. By dividing the presentation into three sections, and recording them separately, I was able to keep my focus a bit better than usual. I think I will use that approach again in the future.

The idea of "research as compulsion" was derived mainly from Ezra Zuckerman's "Tips to Article Writers" (PDF), which Brayden mentioned in this post. When I am talking about "structures of expectation" or "programmes of perception", I mean essentially what Zuckerman means by "a compelling null hypothesis". Here are his notes:

7. Build up the null hypothesis to be as compelling as possible. A paper will not be interesting unless there is a really compelling null hypothesis. If there is no interesting alternative to the author’s argument, why would anyone care about it? Flogging straw men is both unfair and uninteresting.

8. Save the null. Since the null is compelling, it must be right under certain conditions. The author’s job is to explain to the reader that s/he was right to believe x about the world, but that since x doesn’t hold under certain conditions, s/he should shift to belief x'. This helps the reader feel comfortable about shifting to a new idea. Moreover, a very subtle shift in thinking can go a long way.

Perhaps not everyone will understand the idea of a "null hypothesis". It is used mainly in statistical studies and you can read a bit about what it is here. Roughly speaking, the null hypothesis is what the results would show if the effect you have discovered did not exist. In that sense, it is "business as usual".

A null hypothesis does not follow from your field's expectations by definition, but when Zuckerman says that it should be "compelling" he is moving in that direction. A study that discredits an implausible null hypothesis is not really very interesting. (The plausibility of a hypothesis is determined by the dominant theories in your field.) The most interesting (and publishable) papers are those that compel us to think differently about something.

Other recent posts of interest at include "What Makes for a Good Presentation?" and "Grad Skool Rulz #18".

My cousin, who speaks several languages, recently pointed out to me that very few people understand the subjunctive in English. Next week I'm going back to basic grammar issues. Until then, keep searching and keep writing. Yeah ...


Jonathan said...

I don't think any native speaker of English understands the subjunctive. I know I don't.

Anonymous said...

Hej thomas, love your concept of theory. very kuhnian, I'd say, and also very useful for teaching purposes. excellent work!