Sunday, December 22, 2013

Moving from Idea: Considerations and Constraints in Hypothesis Marketing

The primary fuel for hypothesis generation is the observation.   From this hypothesis, experiments can be performed to test its validity, first and foremost by systematically replicating the observation in controlled conditions, primarily to destroy the hypothesis.  If the hypothesis is unable to be defeated, then it stands.  In many cases, you are fighting a battle that you know you will lose.  This hypothesis, upon multiple victories, then becomes a theory which can be applied not only to purely scientific pursuits but to new product design, new policy design, or in business case development for example.  However, several considerations must be made before undertaking a rigorous set of experimental investigations regardless of the purpose.   One must first ask, is the project feasible?  This basic question plays into both considerations and constraints to a given project. 
One must then ask if the project is cost effective.  Anyone looking at the current economy will understand why financial considerations are important, but cost is also a function of time, energy, and resources as well.  Finally, one must ask if the project is marketable.  This is where I hit the nail on the proverbial head as far as a major failing in many scientific disciplines.  As the poet Ice Cube said it, "you better check yo self before you wreck yo self."  If the idea won't sell, then the idea should be abandoned, otherwise you are going to squander resources, time, and energy without cause.  Markets, are a concept not carefully scrutinized in the realms of science, but they are vital to the success of all involved. This concept is clarified below.

Observation 1:  There is water on Mars.
Hypothesis 1:  The water on Mars could be used to fuel our space ships and habitations.

Observation 2: Flies will fall straight down when a swat is attempted.
Hypothesis 2: This response is an evolutionary mediated survival instinct.

It is unlikely, that you would be considering moving forward with an observation if you had not already considered the results of such labor on at least three variables; value to yourself, value to others, and value in completing a much larger project.    These values are the definition of markets.  In other words; markets are the groups that will benefit from your undertaking.  Each and every value equation I mention is based on the simple premise mentioned above, i.e. that observations are investigated based on their ultimate finite value to human survival (yes, I said human survival!).  A paycheck or a warm meal may be closer to your heart than the ideological concept of survival, but both a paycheck and a warm meal are practical objectives in the pursuit of survival and therefore the broader general term can be used to replace them.
There are several ways in which an observation can have a practical impact to the individual.  First, if the observation is truly novel it could lead directly to a conclusion that has not been exploited and therefore it can be used in the process of innovation in order to drive profit.  This is however the most unlikely result, since most simple observations have already been exploited, at least by some.  For instance the observation that round objects would roll (down hills for instance) lead to the innovation of the wheel, which became extremely useful and has since been reinvented at least 1 billion times (this number was derived from a careful scrutiny of pretty much nothing, but I suspect it actually underestimates the number of times wheels have actually been involved in more complicated devices.)  However, observations do not have to be novel to human knowledge to have value for the individual.  The individual who observes that they like souffles, may then investigate the creation of souffles on the internet and learn to bake one on their own.  Making souffles has a finite value in that specific individual's survival.  For instance it allows them to create something that they enjoy to eat, making them happier; and being happier and making souffles for others makes them friends, all of finite value to the individual's survival.
Our souffle artist has now used her investigations to make friends, and depending on the glut of souffle chefs in her region (and the regulatory environment) she may even be able to sell her souffles to add additional values from her observation that souffle's are a pretty spiffy food. Indeed, in order for an idea to have an economic profit it must be commercialized and this is an example of value to others.
However, in the case of using the water on Mars to fuel our space ships and habitations, we would probably need quite a few things in advance (such as really good space ships) and while there is value in this proposition, there are a good many constraints to consider as well.  Needless to say, this project is probably not feasible.  I say probably, because if enough people want to fund me to get started on this project, I can get to work on it, and indeed a number of people already are, however their objectives are not as ultimate as the hypothesis above, but are parts of a whole.  Which leads to the final consideration,which is that many observations can be attributed to potential solutions to broader problems.  An example of this would be the study of theoretical physics, which while very esoteric in nature, has allowed for the building of telescopes and space crafts through a series of iterations and combinations of derived data.  This is an important point that history can help us to make.  Whereas, previously ambiguous and perhaps esoteric data had been published for decades in the area of theoretical physics, it was only recently that the value of this research was realized at the societal and economic level for the detection of planets around other stars and for determining of trajectories and times to reach planets like Mars or alternatively for creating circuits that could be used in quantum computing.  It is the pooling of data from lesser observations that has lead us to a place in human history where we can apply what we have learned to treat complex diseases, alter our ecosystems, and potentially migrate to another planet around our sun.

The second observation, which I have actually made while swatting at flies on various occasions, brought about the hypothesis that flies drop prior to being swatted, perhaps in response to the sensation of increase air pressure (this is but one theory on the matter), in order to evade death; i.e. those organisms that possessed this trait had an increased survival potential.  Even, without knowledge of the reason, they were able to evade death better then flies without this trait and therefore propagated better.  Hence, an evolutionary mediated increase in this trait would occur if this were true.  This could be tested.  One could envision growing flies in two conditions.  One in which, a generic cohort of flies was divided into two groups and allowed to reproduce.  In the control group flies would be subjected to periods where pressure changes did not lead to subsequent collision and in the other group the pressure changes did.  After several generations, a blinded observer could tabulate the number of flies that had the sudden drop response mentioned above.  If the hypothesis was true, the trait would be higher in the group in which pressure change was followed by collision and potential death than in the control group  (of course the hypothesis could also be wrong, see this alternate hypothesis).
The question that we must ask is not whether this experiment was feasible, but whether it was market-ably worth doing?  What gain would we have from learning this information?  As devil's advocate, and conductor of many useless experiments in my time, I might say that this information could be of great value down the line, even without knowing its purpose now (Just as possessing this trait as a fly is of great utility without knowing why.)  For example, when researchers discovered the cytotoxic T-lymphocyte antigen 4 (CTLA-4) in the 1980s, they had no idea of its relevance to cancer.  But a cost benefit analysis might suggest that the answer to this question is entirely academic in the present, and might therefore be better left unanswered until such a time that its answer can be given more value.  

In the course of any given task, observations will be made.  Many of which, get filed in the back of the observers mind and are lost in the scheme of things.  It has long been my disdain that such should be the case and I have tried, on more than one occasion to write down or document my observations and the various hypotheses that were generated from them.  Within my book shelves and stacks of half filled note books are many such ideas in various disciplines gathering dust.  These ideas are not just scientific concepts, but could be plans for starting a new 'make your own salad' restaurant or for building a mini bar in my basement.  They are, like most notions, simple and, like many notions, will never be acted on.  Others, however, which somehow rise above the dust, or are otherwise recurrent in my mind, may at some point be attempted experimentally.    Many of these ideas fall through the cracks not because they would not be feasible, though this should be high on the consideration list, but because of the primary three constraints to observation follow up; time, cost, and complexity.  Indeed, each of these constraints factor into the primary constraint which is feasibility. 

The scientist bases his or her career on making observations into discoveries.  However the cost of discovery, i.e. the cost of validating that a specific observation is A) reproducible and  B) explainable by a set of rules, is very high.  Therefore several factors must be considered before a scientist or other individual should undertake the experimentation necessary to validate an observations worth.  In other words, in the passing of any given day, at work and play, individuals may observe quite a few things that they may deem novel, but are they experimentally feasible, worth the cost, and is there a market.  The discovery process is recursive with each set of observations and examinations leading to more observations,  and this is the major reason for the nearly infinite expansion of human knowledge.  Just remember that the observations that you don't follow up on will most likely be followed up on by others, when the factors are more favorably aligned.

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