The essence of academic research

By James Hayton,
November 10, 2015

The purpose of academic research is not just to push the boundaries of knowledge, but to break free from limiting personal beliefs about the way things should be.

Instinct is useful, but the universe is more interesting than we can imagine or extrapolate from personal experience. The most important results are those that—at first—appear wrong; the counter-intuitive, the confusing, the weird and the wonderful effects nature reveals.

To prove usually means to show something to be true, but it can also mean to test. The aim of research should never be to prove your hypothesis in the sense of showing your ideas to be true, but to test them with rigour and allow yourself to be guided honestly by the data.

It doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn't matter how smart you are. If it doesn't agree with experiment, it's wrong.

Rigour is essential, because weird effects can arise from mistakes or malfunctions. Test, test, and test again before you get too excited about a new discovery. Distrust your instincts; seek out knowledgeable people who will disagree with you and seek methodologies more reliable than your beliefs.

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