31 March, 2005 at 23:31 Leave a comment

Features of Good Theories
(via “The Twinkle Theory” excerpt at http://www.onlineoriginals.com/showitem.asp?itemID=245)

The best theories have three basic features –
1) First, they are exceedingly simple
2) Second, once they are widely known, they seem rather obvious to everyone
3)The third feature of a good theory is the Eureka! factor
Take the theory of natural selection: that new beneficial traits are likely to be passed on. Or of psychoanalysis: that unconscious feelings can affect one’s behaviour. Both are easy to understand. And now that they’re familiar to us, they simply ring true in our daily lives, and have a secure place at the very centre of our common world view.
Of the theories I usually propose for my entertainment (or, heightened self-interest or self-importance), I can say for certain only that they are simple (and sometimes outrageously blatantly stupid). I cannot say whether the theories will fit in with everyone’s daily experience and so become part of our accepted knowledge of the world.
What has prompted me to write down these theories and indeed a ‘serious’ book on the style of [The Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe] is that virtually everyone to whom I’ve mentioned these theories has commented that the theories seem to ring true. They have already become a part of their world view.
But most importantly, most of the theories have manifested in a Eureka! moment. Such as a tall blonde in front of me in a queue asking “how much for this 5£ phone-card?” Such is the apocryphal apple falling on Newton’s head – that a casual observation finds itself suddenly inflated into a full-blown truism.
Whether a portent or not, most of the theories in this book started with just such a moment. Yes, they may be prejudiced. They might be bigoted. They might be extremely presumptious generalizations of a twisted mind. But I tend to see them as patterns. As a scientist, I basically am trained to look for patterns (and problems and perhaps, solutions). And generalizations generally work. That is why they are called generalizations!


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