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Using Hypotheses to Become a Better Thinker

Using hypotheses can help us become clearer thinkers, save us time, and help us communicate succinctly. We can use them wherever we’re not sure and care enough about getting to a good answer. They’re at the heart of scientific problem solving, and have been used by great thinkers since before our boy Aristotle. Wherever I’ve trained the use of hypotheses, people find it a refreshing and mind opening approach. I hope it’s worthy of your attention.

Let me say what I mean by stating a hypothesis. All we are saying is: “This is what I suppose given what I know right now.” That’s all. It’s our first venture at an answer, and acts as a starting point in getting to a good solution. We could be supposing anything from “Miranda will be the best leader for the company” to “evolution explains everything.”

Our hypothesis is a working answer that we hold gently and challenge hard. By stating this working answer, and making it tangible, we give ourselves something concrete to test with thinking and evidence. Our job is to challenge it: “Does it cover things completely? Is it consistent with observations? Does it make sense logically? Is it unequivocal with no room for misunderstanding? Is it simple enough to be obvious? Can I think of any exceptions that hole my beautiful hypothesis below the water line?” As we challenge our working answer with evidence and clear thinking, we expect it to change, just like the detective’s naive first guess in an episode of CSI. If we’re really hungry investigators or expansive thinkers, we’re rarely happy until our first guess has been challenged and changed at least a couple of times.

As we go through this process, our hypothesis slowly solidifies into a thesis; our supposition turns into our position on the matter. In some cases, we might even get to the verifiable truth: “It was Professor Plum whodunit,” or, “This business will be profitable.” Often, we’ll never know the truth but will run with our best thesis: “John will be the best Governor,” or, “profit share is the right incentive scheme.”

Starting by stating what I suppose has a host of advantages over just asking questions or musing distractedly. It forces me to be concrete about what I think, which highlights weaknesses and makes my thinking better. It turns my perspective into one of a humble investigator who welcomes challenge, as opposed to a blustering know-it-all or a vague wonderer. It gives me a focus for my investigative efforts. It enables me at any stage to be explicit about my current position on the matter, being overt about where I’m confident and where I’m unsure. I can communicate my position at any time, so that other people can understand, challenge and contribute.

Using a hypothesis has drawbacks, typically because of using it badly. The biggest is that we get attached to our hypotheses and slip into trying to prove them. We’re all guilty of this, though it’s an even easier trap to fall into if we don’t think by hypothesis, and so don’t welcome self-challenge or new insight.

Hypotheses are essential to the scientific problem solving that guided Newton and the analytical rhetoric that guided Madison and Martin Luther King. Everyone that learns the skill becomes a better thinker. If you use hypotheses, you’ve got exalted company in Aristotle, Cicero, every mechanic or plumber who actually fixes your problem, every great fictional detective and, I suppose, some real ones too.

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