Science is both a body of knowledge and an investigative process. It is systematic structuring of doubt and it advances by observation, hypothesis, and experimental falsification (photo is a frame from the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, depicting Sir Belvedere preparing a scientific experiment).

Science does not ask “Why?”

Because it can only answer “What?” and “How?”

Thomas P Seager, PhD
6 min readSep 5, 2018


There comes a time for every graduate student pursuing a doctorate in philosophy (PhD) when they must narrow down their research interests and make a commitment to a dissertation topic. Usually, they’ve had a general sense of the field in which they’re working, they’ve read an extraordinary number of research papers and books on their topic (so they understand where the knowledge gaps, or areas of ignorance are to be found) and they’re on the cusp of advancing from student to a more mature status we call a candidate. Maarten van Doorn just published an article that included a few paragraphs about autonomy, and it reminded me that he may be at or near this stage.

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There are typically two approaches for formalizing or structuring their research: 1) hypotheses, 2) research questions. They are not mutually exclusive, but most students will either choose one or the other. The hypotheses approach is more popular in engineering (my field) and physical sciences, which lend themselves to experimental falsification. The best hypotheses are conjectures, or guesses, about the relationship between independent and dependent variables. Thus, they are stated in a way that suggests the experiment that might falsify them. (If it can’t be falsified by experimental investigation, it’s not a hypothesis. It’s just a crackpot idea).

Most of the students I work with start with the research question approach, at least at first. Its seems easier or less formal, but the fact is that only the wrong questions come easily. Asking the right question takes practice.

Often, that practice comes in the form of a conversation that sounds something like this:

Student: Thank you for meeting with me today Dr. Seager! I want you to know that I’ve decided on my research question! I’m going to study, “Why is the sky blue?”

Me: That’s wrong.

Student: Wait, what? How can a question be wrong? I thought only answers can be wrong?

Me: Of course questions can be wrong. Your question is