Stand Back. I’m Going to Try Science.

So these days I’m working on a presentation about streams troubleshooting. I did a nice troubleshooting demo in OOW08, but this time I wanted something more theoretical.

I want to give my audience a feel of what Tanel Podel calls “Systematic Approach” and Jonathan Lewis calls “Scientific Method”.

Thinking about all this, reminded me of a lesson from my favorite book – “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. In the book, the protagonist explains how to use the scientific method to troubleshoot his motorcycle.

The scientific method uses logic. And the book explains about two kinds of logic:

“Two kinds of logic are used, inductive and deductive. Inductive inferences start with observations of the machine and arrive at general conclusions. For example, if the cycle goes over a bump and the engine misfires, and then goes over another bump and the engine misfires, and then goes over another bump and the engine misfires, and then goes over a long smooth stretch of road and there is no misfiring, and then goes over a fourth bump and the engine misfires again, one can logically conclude that the misfiring is caused by the bumps. That is induction: reasoning from particular experiences to general truths.

Deductive inferences do the reverse. They start with general knowledge and predict a specific observation. For example, if, from reading the hierarchy of facts about the machine, the mechanic knows the horn of the cycle is powered exclusively by electricity from the battery, then he can logically infer that if the battery is dead the horn will not work. That is deduction.”

Sometimes I read people claiming that only one of these inferences counts as truly scientific. I don’t really see how you can work with just on of them. You need good dose of both just to create a reproducable test case of a problem.

Next comes the most perfect description of systematic troubleshooting. It is so good that I don’t see how anything else can be added to this or said after that. Just substitute Oracle for Nature, Database for Motorcycle, your current problem to the electricity system and your favorite v$ views for spark plugs…

Its going to be a quite a read, but its worth it. I also highlighted my favorite quotes 🙂
Now I just have to figure out how to put this into a presentation.

“For this you keep a lab notebook. Everything gets written down, formally, so that you know at all times where you are, where you’ve been, where you’re going and where you want to get. In scientific work and electronics technology this is necessary because otherwise the problems get so complex you get lost in them and confused and forget what you know and what you don’t know and have to give up. In cycle maintenance things are not that involved, but when confusion starts it’s a good idea to hold it down by making everything formal and exact. Sometimes just the act of writing down the problems straightens out your head as to what they really are.

The logical statements entered into the notebook are broken down into six categories: (1) statement of the problem, (2) hypotheses as to the cause of the problem, (3) experiments designed to test each hypothesis, (4) predicted results of the experiments, (5) observed results of the experiments and (6) conclusions from the results of the experiments. This is not different from the formal arrangement of many college and high-school lab notebooks but the purpose here is no longer just busywork. The purpose now is precise guidance of thoughts that will fail if they are not accurate.

The real purpose of scientific method is to make sure Nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something you don’t actually know. There’s not a mechanic or scientist or technician alive who hasn’t suffered from that one so much that he’s not instinctively on guard. That’s the main reason why so much scientific and mechanical information sounds so dull and so cautious. If you get careless or go romanticizing scientific information, giving it a flourish here and there, Nature will soon make a complete fool out of you. It does it often enough anyway even when you don’t give it opportunities. One must be extremely careful and rigidly logical when dealing with Nature: one logical slip and an entire scientific edifice comes tumbling down. One false deduction about the machine and you can get hung up indefinitely.

In Part One of formal scientific method, which is the statement of the problem, the main skill is in stating absolutely no more than you are positive you know. It is much better to enter a statement “Solve Problem: Why doesn’t cycle work?” which sounds dumb but is correct, than it is to enter a statement “Solve Problem: What is wrong with the electrical system?” when you don’t absolutely know the trouble is in the electrical system. What you should state is “Solve Problem: What is wrong with cycle?” and then state as the first entry of Part Two: “Hypothesis Number One: The trouble is in the electrical system.” You think of as many hypotheses as you can, then you design experiments to test them to see which are true and which are false.


Part Three, that part of formal scientific method called experimentation, is sometimes thought of by romantics as all of science itself because that’s the only part with much visual surface. They see lots of test tubes and bizarre equipment and people running around making discoveries. They do not see the experiment as part of a larger intellectual process and so they often confuse experiments with demonstrations, which look the same. A man conducting a gee-whiz science show with fifty thousand dollars’ worth of Frankenstein equipment is not doing anything scientific if he knows beforehand what the results of his efforts are going to be. A motorcycle mechanic, on the other hand, who honks the horn to see if the battery works is informally conducting a true scientific experiment. He is testing a hypothesis by putting the question to nature. The TV scientist who mutters sadly, “The experiment is a failure; we have failed to achieve what we had hoped for,” is suffering mainly from a bad scriptwriter. An experiment is never a failure solely because it fails to achieve predicted results. An experiment is a failure only when it also fails adequately to test the hypothesis in question, when the data it produces don’t prove anything one way or another.

Skill at this point consists of using experiments that test only the hypothesis in question, nothing less, nothing more. If the horn honks, and the mechanic concludes that the whole electrical system is working, he is in deep trouble. He has reached an illogical conclusion. The honking horn only tells him that the battery and horn are working. To design an experiment properly he has to think very rigidly in terms of what directly causes what. This you know from the hierarchy. The horn doesn’t make the cycle go. Neither does the battery, except in a very indirect way. The point at which the electrical system directly causes the engine to fire is at the spark plugs, and if you don’t test here, at the output of the electrical system, you will never really know whether the failure is electrical or not.

In the final category, conclusions, skill comes in stating no more than the experiment has proved. It hasn’t proved that when he fixes the electrical system the motorcycle will start. There may be other things wrong. But he does know that the motorcycle isn’t going to run until the electrical system is working and he sets up the next formal question: “Solve problem: what is wrong with the electrical system?”

He then sets up hypotheses for these and tests them. By asking the right questions and choosing the right tests and drawing the right conclusions the mechanic works his way down the echelons of the motorcycle hierarchy until he has found the exact specific cause or causes of the engine failure, and then he changes them so that they no longer cause the failure.

An untrained observer will see only physical labor and often get the idea that physical labor is mainly what the mechanic does. Actually the physical labor is the smallest and easiest part of what the mechanic does. By far the greatest part of his work is careful observation and precise thinking. That is why mechanics sometimes seem so taciturn and withdrawn when performing tests. They don’t like it when you talk to them because they are concentrating on mental images, hierarchies, and not really looking at you or the physical motorcycle at all. They are using the experiment as part of a program to expand their hierarchy of knowledge of the faulty motorcycle and compare it to the correct hierarchy in their mind. They are looking at underlying form.”


3 Comments on “Stand Back. I’m Going to Try Science.”

  1. moshez says:

    Re: inductive vs. deductive vs. science: inductive reasoning is the process of coming up with theories, “every time the cycle goes over a bump it misfires” is a theory, while deductive reasoning is used to verify the theories, “the battery is dead” is a theory which can be verified using the horn experiment, if we take the “the cycle’s electricity is exclusively powered by the battery” theory for granted.

    Properly speaking, only inductive reasoning is indeed “science”, as deductive reasoning is “math”, and therefore a tool in the service of science. This is where the idea only one of those is science comes from. However, the popular interpretation that only one of those is *needed* in science is what’s wrong. Math is *not* science, and yet it is impossible to do science without applying math.

    Nitpickingly yours 🙂

    • prodlife says:

      Actually I’ve ran into the opposite idea – that deductive reasoning is science while inductive reasoning is “guessing”.

      I’d think that both are logical methods, and therefore mathematical ideas applied to science.

  2. joel garry says:

    Don’t want to step in the middle of this again, but I’d like to point out the wikipedia Scientific Method entry – locked due to vandalism, of course.

    Very good writing so far, Chen. I’d add that just because there is or isn’t an electrical problem doesn’t rule out something else happening contemporaneously at the bump, with similar observational effect. So there could actually be an electrical problem with the spark plug wire, you could fix it, and when you go over a bump the loose engine mounts could constrict the fuel line, the broken air filter element could constrict the airflow, another electrical problem in the condenser… then mechanics would argue infinitum over whether there was an electrical problem. In other words, it can be difficult to reduce to single variable hypothesis testing

    This may be worsened in the abstract black box approach to Oracle. As far as troubleshooting, I think the hoops Oracle support makes you jump through are somewhat good, I point people at Note: 210014.1, not having checked lately if there is anything better.

    Oddly enough, I just recently saw another reference to ZATAOMM, following links from to Crawford’s pages.

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