Do you think a lot about scientific predictions?

Photograph by Philip Queller

Photograph by Philip Queller

A couple of weeks ago Alex Broadbent gave a talk in our seminar series on the history and philosophy of science and medicine. The point of the talk was a philosophical one, what is a good prediction? He was interested in actual temporal predictions that dealt with the future. He had a theory of prediction that did not seem to have clear ties to why I’m interested in predictions. I’m interested in what makes a good scientific prediction, how scientific predictions vary, and what role predictions play in effective scientific endeavors. A philosopher might find my interests hopelessly vague. Each of us can learn at the intersection of our disciplines, provided the scientist doesn’t despair in front of the precision required by philosophers.

I go to as many of these seminars as I can because I’m a believer in seeing things from a different perspective. What could be better than philosophy for doing so? But often the talk is about some angle that seems more important to philosophers than it does to me. Or the title could mean something completely different from what I might think. It is still worth going because it stimulates thinking.

In this case, I thought about predictions. I love predictions. Isn’t this at the heart of science? Once we know something about a system, we can take the patterns we see there and predict something about the nature of a system we do not yet know. That may seem too cognitive for you, but it is an essential element. Predictions can be super cool. They can generate great stories. Richard D. Alexander famously predicted what a eusocial mammal would be like, only to discover he had just described the naked mole rat. Dick’s very prediction is what revealed their odd system. It is eusocial, with workers and queens. David Queller wrote a whole paper of predictions on what genomic imprinting should look like in social hymenoptera, because of haplodiploidy, but I won’t be explaining it here.

I’ll just be thinking about how we should try to predict and try to understand our predictions, their exact nature, their foundation, and what constitutes evidence for or against them. I fear I could never lay it out in enough detail for a philosopher, but really, I don’t have to. I just have to satisfy myself and my readers. The more careful, methodical and precise I am the better. Happy predicting!

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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