Some long time ago, one of my best professors, William Davenport, introduced me to the basic scientific method. Professor Davenport was an extraordinary logician and a philosopher.
He revolutionized my thinking on a number of issues, and he did so though his voice never in all our conversations deviated from a soft monotone — a monotone I once swore capable of knocking out a busload of screaming cheerleaders on amphetamines. But to be fair, I was drunk when I swore it. After I sobered up, I realized my mistake, and corrected my statement to two busloads.
Despite his voice, Professor Davenport had fully developed the logician’s skill of slicing away fat to reveal the essential ideas. He could pull a string of logic so tight it would seem like an acrobat might walk his thoughts without a balance pole. The false and fake never had much chance with him. And that is precisely what I most needed when I was 19.
I was fresh out of a stifling rural town where it seemed that no one — at least not publicly — pursued their thoughts much beyond their neighbor’s thoughts. Where everyone lived by the rule that, to get along, you reigned in. That is, you pulled your thoughts up short even while they were still colts. You tightly corralled them, though they naturally wanted green pastures. And the gods help you if you did not break your ideas to the saddle of conformity.
In contrast, Professor Davenport seemed to me — fearless.
Though the first course I took with him — “Introduction to Logic” — met at a bleary-eyed eight in the morning, I could not have been more attentive to his lectures had he paid me for it in gold. By the third or fourth week, I was certain that logic and evidence — only logic and evidence — were his navigational stars. And I was beginning to sense how liberating that was, how whole worlds could be discovered — could be braved — steering by those stars.
I threw myself into that course with improbable intensity. Looking back, I realize now I so put myself into it because I was learning more than logic. I was rising up out of the blinding conformity of my town. At the same time coming home to a truer home than I’d known before. In short, I was finding myself.
Professor Davenport not only had a monotone, but he trumped his soft voice with a shy and unassuming personality. Then too, his boyish build and youthful appearance made him look like a fellow student, rather than an accomplished professor. Last, he had an almost unnatural ability to at all times, and in every place, appear lost.
Even when you met with him in his office — even right on his home turf — you felt a deep concern to take his hand and lead him to the university’s lost and found. There was really nothing about the man that spoke of steering by stars to brave new worlds. Except for the fact he could place ideas before you illuminated like comets by his mind.
I wish now I had kept my notebooks from the courses I took with him. I would especially like to read his comments on the hypothetico-deductive model of the scientific method. There is more than one way of describing the model, but I think the simplest is to liken the model to the taunt belly of an erotic pole dancer.
Unfortunately, that is also by far the least accurate way ever invented of describing the hypothetico-deductive model. I’m not saying who invented such a useless way of describing the model, but it was not Professor Davenport. A much better — yet simple enough for this blog post — way to describe the hypothetico-deductive model might be:
- Define the question
- Gather information (observe and/or study the observations of other folks)
- Form a falsifiable hypothesis (i.e. a hypothesis that could conceivably be demonstrated to be false)
- Make a prediction from the hypothesis
- Perform an experiment designed to test the prediction
- Collect data from the experiment
- Analyze and shift out noise in the data
- Interpret data (e.g. does data support or contradict the hypothesis)
- Draw conclusions that serve as a starting point for new hypothesis
- Publish results (peer review)
- Retest (frequently done by other scientists)
- Accept Nobel Prize (even more frequently done by other scientists)
Although I think the model fails to show how scientists actually practice science, it does seem to me useful to the extent it lays out a bit of the logic of the sciences. To be sure, the above is not Professor Davenport’s description of the hypothetico-deductive model, but then it’s been about 35 years: After all that time, I think I should be forgiven even if I were to, say, ridiculously confuse the model with the taunt belly of an erotic pole dancer. Not that I would, though.
In that introductory course in logic, we began to study the logic of the sciences near the close of the semester. And it was all over before we had time to complete our studies. But, for me, that hypothetico-deductive model, even half-understood, was the high point of the semester. I didn’t know at the time how problematic it was. Instead, I saw in it a method of establishing reliable truths that transcended blind conformity to anyone’s opinion; that relied neither on whim, nor on authority; and which seemed to open many more doors than anything I had been taught before. I confess, even to this day, I have a fondness for it.
I took a handful of courses with William Davenport, and both because he was such an unassuming man, and because he so deeply impressed me as intellectually fearless, I came to privately think of him as, “Wild Bill”.
Despite the irony, it was an apt name because his courage was the key to him. You couldn’t really understand Wild Bill without understanding he would go wherever reason took him. There’s integrity and a kind of authenticity in that. And like anything that rises above all around it that is merely fake and cheap, that authenticity can inspire others.
I sometimes wonder at people who think only giants can liberate us. Wild Bill Davenport was in almost all ways an ordinary man. He was certainly no bigger-than-life-giant: No Moses of the American Midwest. He was so shy, it took all but an act of will to pay him the attention he deserved. He was so unassuming, even now, even knowing how he inspired me, even understanding that he helped midwife my intellectual liberation, even today, I cannot think of him as heroic.
But he probably was, in a very genuine way, heroic. Just not in any way that would obligate you to notice it. Just not in any giant way.