I very much enjoyed, and support the views you expressed in ‘Back to Darwin?’ Charles Darwin was an indefatigable observer, but it is likely that he already had a hypothesis in mind. If Darwin was, in fact, an indefatigable hypothesis‐tester, it is likely that the cultural climate in which he worked induced him to disguise the fact. There is much evidence, for example, that the ‘big’ idea of evolution by natural selection could well have predated the voyage on The Beagle.
Be that as it may, I do think there is a lot of nonsense now being talked and written about hypothesis‐free research in the context of bioinformatics and genomics, as if these powerful techniques in some way alter the way in which we try to understand the world. As I think you imply, there is a real danger in science policy of investing everything in the idea that ‘cranking the handle’ of a new and more powerful machine will, by itself, generate new knowledge.
Bioinformatics, genomics and other examples of large‐scale data collection again raise Karl Popper's question of which is a better metaphor for scientific enquiry—the bucket or the searchlight. Even the oceans of data from DNA microarrays cannot be converted into knowledge or understanding by being scooped up, at random, as if in buckets. Knowledge is more than information. We do not trawl for meaning, we go looking for it. So we select what we examine with care. Our intention, in selecting what to look for, is to compare the results of experiments with the predictions of our hypotheses, to see if the results coincide with the predictions.
The sum of the data we can collect is too vast to mean anything. So we look, purposefully, to see if any part if it resembles our expectations. Science is a searchlight—we have to first decide where to point it, and why.
- Copyright © 2001 European Molecular Biology Organization