François Jacob, who shared the 1965 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine with André Lwoff and Jacques Monod, had a picture to capture the full scientific process much better than the paradigm of “hypothesis-driven” research: he distinguishes two modes of scientific work: “day science” (“science de jour”) and “night science” (“science de nuit”)…
According to Itai Yanai and Martin Lercher:
Day science is the one you read about in the news, it is the one we learn about in school, the one captured by the phrase “hypothesis driven”. It’s epitomized by the women and men in white lab coats holding pipettes or looking intently at a computer screen. A day scientist is a hunter who has a clear picture of what she is pursuing.
But the bright day is just one half of the cycle. What is on the night side? Reflect for a second on the hypothesis that you are testing. Did you pull it from the ether? How? There is no single answer to this question. In many cases, we may not even have a coherent answer, which may be why we prefer not to include it in most accounts of the scientific process. As Jacob says: “Night science wanders blind. It hesitates, stumbles, recoils, sweats, wakes with a start. Doubting everything, it is forever trying to find itself, question itself, pull itself back together. Night science is a sort of workshop of the possible where what will become the building material of science is worked out”. In day science, we may test a hypothesis using established protocols, and we may move to neighboring ideas in small, logical steps. But ideas that are unconnected or only loosely connected are out of reach when all we rely on are established protocols and logic. This is why we often have to pop out into the world of night science, where we float between ideas that may be only loosely connected, often moving in associative leaps rather than in logical steps
In another wonderful article, “A hypothesis is a liability”, Yanai and Lercher add:
Day science is the adult in the room, rigorously testing hypotheses. But despite its power, the day science mode is not amenable to generating the ideas in the first place. Only the night science realm, with its lack of specific hypotheses that blind us in day science, allows us to think freely in an exploratory fashion. Science relies on this back and forth between day and night, each overcoming the other’s shortcomings; we can let ourselves explore so freely in night science because we trust ourselves to check the generated hypotheses later, in day science.
In this article, the authors managed to prove with a smart experiment that when we explore freely we can discover more, whereas if we’re “hypothesis-driven” this limits our creativity, “effectively blinding us to new ideas”. As they conclude: “A hypothesis then becomes a liability”. I strongly recommend reading the full article, you’ll be surprised! [I discovered this article in Alex Danco’s great newsletter]
François Jacob described the two notions in this 3-minute interview. He also calls them “hot science” (“science chaude”) and “cool science” (“science froide”), which made me think of Marshall McLuhan’s “Hot” and “cool” media, although with “hot” and “cool” being inverted:
Personally, I had reached the point of having a pen and paper next to my bed, mainly so as not to miss anything, because by morning you don't remember any of it. And actually, most of these ideas that occur at night, are fit for the dustbin, but once in a while, there are one or two that emerge. So I had the paper and pen by my side, in order to quickly write things down on paper. Actually, I didn't write much, but I still believe that at night we're not in a similar intellectual and psychological state as the one we are in during the day. Well, at least that's how I am.
I often wake up during the night and write things down on my phone, but I’ll maybe invest in a pen and paper now… :)