Monday, July 23, 2007

What makes a theory compelling?

Karl Popper was a philosopher of science that was very much interested in this question. He tried to distinguish 'science' from 'pseudoscience', but got more and more dissatisfied with the idea that the empirical method (supporting a theory with observations and experiments) could effectively mark this distinction. He sometimes used the example of astrology “with its stupendous mass of empirical evidence based on observation”, but also nuanced it by stating that “science often errs, and that pseudoscience may happen to stumble on the truth.”

Next to his well-known work on falsification, Popper started to develop alternatives to determine the scientific status or quality of a theory. He wrote that “confirmations [of a theory] should count only if they are the result of risky predictions; that is to say, if, unenlightened by the theory in question, we should have expected an event which was incompatible with the theory — an event which would have refuted the theory.” Popper, 1963).

Popper was especially thrilled with the result of Eddington’s eclipse observations, which in 1919 brought the first important confirmation of Einstein's theory of gravitation. It was the surprising consequence of this theory that light should bend in the presence of large, heavy objects (Einstein was apparently willing to drop his theory if this would not be the case). Independent of whether such a prediction turns out to be true or not, Popper considered it an important quality of ‘real science’ to make such ‘risky predictions’.

I still find this an intriguing idea. The notion of ‘risky’ or ‘surprising predictions’ might actually be the beginning of a fruitful alternative to existing model selection techniques, such as goodness-of-fit (which theory predicts the data best) and simplicity (which theory gives the simplest explanation). Also in music cognition measures like goodness-of-fit (r-squared, percentage variance accounted for, and other measures from the experimental psychology toolkit) are often used to confirm a theory.* Nevertheless, it is non-trivial to think of (existing) theories in music cognition that make surprising predictions. That is, a theory that predicts a yet unknown phenomenon as a consequence of the intrinsic structure of the theory itself (If you know of any, let me know!)

Well, these are still relatively raw ideas. I hope to be able to present them in a more digested format next week at the music perception and cognition conference (SMPC) in Montreal. Looking forward to it!

* If you want to read more on this topic, see here.

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