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Does your method work because of or in spite of your theory?

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At his blog, Curious Wavefunction, Ash Jogalekar* muses on the thinking of chemistry Nobelist John Pople (1998):

But one of the simpler problems with training sets is that they are often incomplete and miss essential features that are rampant among the real world’s test sets (more pithily, all real cows as far as we know are non-spherical). This is where Pople’s point about presenting the strengths and weaknesses of models applies: if you are unsure how similar the test case is to the training set, let the experimentalists know about this limitation. Pople’s admonition also speaks to the more general one about always communicating the degree of confidence in a model to the experimentalists. Often even a crude assessment of this degree can help prioritize which experiments should be done and which ones should be best assessed against cost and implementation.

One should recognize the strengths as well as the weaknesses of other people’s models and learn from them.

Here we are talking about plagiarism in the best sense of the tradition. It is key to be able to compare different methods and borrow from their strengths. But comparing methods is also important for another, more elemental reason: without proper comparison you might often be misled into thinking that your method actually works, and more importantly that it works because of a chain of causality embedded in the technique. But if a simpler method works as well as your technique, then perhaps your technique worked not because of but in spite of the causal chain that appears so logical to you. More.

A friend wonders, Would the theory of evolution and evolutionary models pass this challenge? Would specified complexity (ID theory)? Thoughts?

See also: Philosopher of physics to physicists: Calculate, but don’t shut up (What philosophy offers to science, then, is not mystical ideas but meticulous method.)

Incidentally, people like Stephen Hawking dismiss philosophy of science so as to get non-evidence-based theories like the multiverse fronted alongside evidence-based science.

* Yes, he’s the one who got dumped from Scientific American blogs in a suspicious incident around Nicholas Wade’s revival of Darwinian racism. See: Scientific American may be owned by Nature but it is now run by Twitter, and Forrest Mims (who should know) on Scientific American’s recent PC police swoop. See also: The Curious Wavefunction on the dangers of certainty in science.

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Hat tip: Pos-Darwinista

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