Last night, I found myself in an unlikely situation for an undergraduate student, having dinner with our college’s Board of Trustees. Inevitably, I find that, for all the mystique that the *Board of Trustees* gets, they really are supportive people, genuinely interested in the goings-on of the college they oversee and the lives of its students. And, as befits just about every social situation I find myself in these days, I found myself talking about my thesis research.
Now, I frequently have some sort of epiphany when discussing my academic projects with people whose perspective on issues is fundamentally different than my own. And, though it might not be representative of the american public as a whole, there is certainly a huge diversity of perspective to be had talking to the trustees and those who were invited to have dinner with them. So, in the process of explaining my thesis research to many someones with different backgrounds, I had somewhat of a revelation of my own.
The instrumental question was this: “Does your research have a hypothesis?” A straightforward question, especially to a self-styled social scientist like myself who values data and its analysis very highly. This is frequently reflected in my work—for example, my economics thesis had a scientifically conceptualized methodology designed to test what influence residential tree canopy has on property values. The self-structured nature of my environmental studies thesis, however, had thus far made me inclined to think about my research in terms of open-ended questions—ones that have any number of possible answers.
The notion of a hypothesis, however, simplifies the process of answering a question. That is, there is one conjectural “status quo” answer (the null hypothesis), and one alternative hypothesis. The fundamental question is whether or not the null hypothesis holds water, or whether the alternative is more likely to be supported. Thinking about my research in this way made me realize a fundamental assumption that I was making in my thesis discussion. I was assuming that trees can be treated as an amenity in that they influence the development of cities. Does my thesis research have a hypothesis? Yes! It asks whether trees can appropriately be treated as an urban amenity and therefore shape cities. Forcing myself to start my data analysis by addressing this basic question has given my work a groundedness that it previously lacked.
This really does bear on the value of the scientific method as a whole. It would be easy to dismiss *The Scientific Method* as unrealistic, and it wouldn’t be incorrect—the notion that experiments always proceed in a straightforward fashion following their initial design is pragmatically flawed. The fundamental structure of experimental design and testing, however, is a framework that it is worth our while not to dismiss entirely. Even if we are going to iterate on the basic process, it can be extremely valuable to remember that the basics—like defining a hypothesis—have stuck around this long because they are valuable tools.