Learning to think inside the box (of scientific assumptions)

Behind every research result is a box of assumptions.

That box is a set of constraints for your research. These constraints breed creativity.

It’s important to learn to think creatively inside that box, instead of worrying about the box, the size of the box, or that the box even exists.

View the box of assumptions as liberating and clarifying, both for your audience and for you as a researcher.

Why your audience loves assumptions

Say that you want to solve a research problem, A.

I want to solve problem A.
I want to solve problem A, assuming conditions X, Y, and Z are true.

The second statement is much better than the first, because the second statement tells your audience that you’re not going to solve the problems of X, Y, and Z,and that someone else can worry about them. The conditions X, Y, and Z frame the sandbox for you to solve problem A. This allows your audience to pay attention to how you solve problem A, instead of having their minds wandering on conditions under which you can’t solve A.

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay.

Assumptions give your audience focus.

So, when you do research, help your audience understand the sandbox that you’ve chosen to play and build in.

  • Always include a section on Assumptions in your research writing
  • Always include a slide on Assumptions in your research talks

Why you should love assumptions

As a graduate student, I used to think that assumptions were a laundry list of all the limitations of my work. I wanted to sweep them under the rug and not talk about them, for fear of making my work look less impactful. I was afraid of being found out and critiqued for my research assumptions.

As a graduate student, you are taught that your work needs to have “broad impact,” that your approach needs to be “generic,” and that your work should be “broadly applicable.” Those words strike fear into a graduate student’s heart. How on earth are you supposed to make your work “broadly” anything, if you have to state assumptions that appear to narrow your focus?

As a professor, my perspective changed. I love assumptions now. I insist that my students and I declare them. I demand that we put them in our papers and our talks. I shout them from the roof-tops. Without the assumptions I make, my research doesn’t stack up.

Assumptions give your work focus and integrity.

Assumptions help me to sharpen my focus on what I want to solve, instead of solving the problems of the universe. They help me stop worrying about random factors that might indirectly impact my research, but that I don’t want to worry about, that I can’t solve for, and that are outside my control.

Assumptions are also a matter of integrity. When I state my assumptions, I am stating the precise problem I am solving, under the precise set of conditions where my solution is valid. I am not making broad, sweeping claims of general results that might be invalid. I am avoiding hyperbole.

Everyone talks about thinking outside the box.

It’s far more creative to learn to think inside the box.