Challenging the Dominance of the Hypothetico-Deductive Frame

UKCRIC Doctoral Skills Network and iPACT Network event

Dr Fred D Amonya, Lyciar https://www.lyciar.com/

Register for online webinar through Eventbrite HERE

Research will start with a hypothesis and end with a deduction without ever questioning the Hypothetico-Deductive (HD) frame. Why is the HD frame dominant? And how does the complexity of infrastructure and cities challenge that dominance? On the first question, we will dash over history, searching for the emergence of the HD frame. On the second, will define complexity and its appeal for a science beyond the traditional Newtonian physics that underpins common science. We will then see how the emerging complexity science pulls us closer to case study as a research frame.

So, we face three conceptual frames – HD, complexity, and case study. All the three are common in scholarly parlance. That makes them treacherous. Start with HD. Research will start with a hypothesis and end with a deduction without ever questioning the HD frame. Why is HD so dominant? In part, HD is ecologically appealing. It is an improvement to a scaffolding – study the existing, find weaknesses, and attempt improvement. And that scaffolding is built primarily on classical Newtonian physics (F = ma). That underpinning of Newtonian physics pervades not just physical and natural sciences but social sciences too (notably economics). Why is the scaffold ecologically appealing? It integrates a researcher into a community of science. Yet wait: How do we treat reality that is outside the reach of the scaffolding?

Take infrastructure and cities as social objects. They increasingly reside in spaces outside the domain of classical Newtonian physics. A typical mega infrastructure attracts the concern of citizens in the order 10^7 (tens of millions of people). Yet, Newtonian mechanics struggles to handle three-body situations. So, we should expect the delivery and management of mega infrastructure to be chaotic. It should be intractable. But wait, we have seen many smooth projects. How? Those mega projects rely heavily on the holonomic (binding) effect of politics. Binary politics (two-party system) will often reach consensus, bringing along the people and reducing the order 10^7 to a single body (a single challenge of delivery). And in totalitarian systems, the bind is a given. But even in the mature two-party democracies, we see intractability (cf. Third Runway Heathrow or even HS2). Now ponder young democracies emerging in the era of direct opining by citizens using social media. And consider the extreme excitations that these human ecosystems face – climate change and digitalisation. The comfort of Newtonian tractability ceases. We must accept complexity.

To appreciate complexity, we must draw a rail of randomness. At the far side, we find statistical mechanics dealing with order 10^24 (cf. Avogadro constant). At the near side, Newtonian mechanics resides, reducing situations to two-body problems (typically). Creep on, we find quantum mechanics. But now in infrastructure and cities we face a challenge that resides in the middle (order 10^7). That is the domain of complexity science. It is characterised by emergence. That is, many actors following simple rules produce structures that cannot be explained by the individual actions. We are often reminded of the anthill (largest, order 10^6 ants). A stranger to our planet would possibly not associate the giant anthills with the ants.

Complexity challenges the epistemology of science. We are attracted more to appreciate explication – just illuminate phenomena and see what is going on. That is the essence of case study. Along the illumination, local challenges will instruct us to use classical mechanics and draw deductions that are locally bound. That is not a contradiction. The bigger whole remains a task of explaining not predicting. Complexity is a young science. But how can we question its place!

Suggested Wanders and Readings

1. Dynamical Systems and Complexity: Any introductory book should help. Aim at developing a deeper view of phenomena that comprise interconnected and moving components. Appreciate that for higher order phenomena (a multitude of agents and interests), structures will emerge that cannot be explained by the components. Paul Erdos is crucial. And Philip Andersen is illuminating. Pay homage to More is Different.

2. Institutions: The emergences of complexity will cast on institutions (norms and values of society). Look at North, D.C., 1990. Transaction costs, institutions, and economic performance. Cambridge. Then, give Elinor Ostrom some good time. Understanding Institutional Diversity. Princeton Press, 2005.

3. Cities: Geoffrey West pushes us to find invariants in the mess of cities. Look at his popular book Scale. Give Stephen Strogatz (and his former student DJ Watts) good time too. Question the pairwise structure of their small world network. Now, West’s allometric scaling has been criticised for being too sanguine. For example, see Savage and Others. But its core utility remains intact, that is, fractals of resource distribution and the concept of space-filling. Imagine that core utility of fractals placed against group theory. That’s one reason the maths department must be close to infrastructure and cities. Expect symmetry to give us more as we attempt to better understand cities.

4. From policy to projects: The bridge is social discount rate. Dig into the history of infrastructure appraisal. Post-War infrastructure anchors on Robert Strange McNamara. Look at his time at the Rand. Then explore his escape of the Vietnam crisis and landing at the World Bank. His 13 years at the Bank transformed the space of public policy and infrastructure, not just in the lower income world, but across the world, period. The formalism of infrastructure appraisal in practice today has roots in the McNamara years at the Bank. A good initiation to the questions that confronted the McNamara years is Hiding Hand of Albert Hirschman.

Hirschman, A.O., 1967. The principle of the hiding hand. The public interest, 6, p.10.


Dr Amonya is a scholar on complexity and public investment. For over two decades, he has taught and advised on infrastructure and public policy across the world. He led the governance theme of a UK development programme called Global Transport Knowledge Partnership that sought to bridge the chasm between policymaking and universities of Africa and South-East Asia. Further, he was Chair, Transport Systems Economics, PIARC. In that role, he led policy makers and academics in attempting to understand transport investment in 122 countries by constructing their policy spaces as dynamical systems. Now, he advises Fortune 500 companies in London and other cities on corporate strategy in the era of net zero. In addition, he is assisting African countries in knitting their post-Covid policies. He also guides dialogue on PPP as a member of UNECE team of PPP experts. He is a Chartered Engineer, Fellow CIHT, and he holds a PhD in policy science. A few of his lectures are captured on his ResearchGate. Contact him on LinkedIn.


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