Strong inference

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In philosophy of science, strong inference is a model of scientific inquiry that emphasizes the need for alternative hypotheses, rather than a single hypothesis to avoid confirmation bias.

The term "strong inference" was coined by John R. Platt,[1] a biophysicist at the University of Chicago. Platt notes that some fields, such as molecular biology and high-energy physics, seem to adhere strongly to strong inference, with very beneficial results for the rate of progress in those fields.

The single hypothesis problem[edit]

The problem with single hypotheses, confirmation bias, was aptly described by Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin in 1897:

Despite the admonitions of Platt, reviewers of grant-applications often require "A Hypothesis" as part of the proposal (note the singular). Peer-review of research can help avoid the mistakes of single-hypotheses, but only so long as the reviewers are not in the thrall of the same hypothesis. If there is a shared enthrallment among the reviewers in a commonly believed hypothesis, then innovation becomes difficult because alternative hypotheses are not seriously considered, and sometimes not even permitted.

Strong Inference[edit]

The method, very similar to the scientific method, is described as:

  1. Devising alternative hypotheses;
  2. Devising a crucial experiment (or several of them), with alternative possible outcomes, each of which will, as nearly as possible, exclude one or more of the hypotheses;
  3. Carrying out the experiment(s) so as to get a clean result;
  4. Recycling the procedure, making subhypotheses or sequential hypotheses to refine the possibilities that remain, and so on.


A number of limitations of strong inference have been identified.[3][4]

Strong inference plus[edit]

The limitations of Strong-Inference can be corrected by having two preceding phases:[2]

  1. An exploratory phase: at this point information is inadequate so observations are chosen randomly or intuitively or based on scientific creativity.
  2. A pilot phase: in this phase statistical power is determined by replicating experiments under identical experimental conditions.

These phases create the critical seed observation(s) upon which one can base alternative hypotheses.[2]


  1. ^ John R. Platt (1964). "Strong inference". Science. 146 (3642). doi:10.1126/science.146.3642.347. 
  2. ^ a b c Don L. Jewett (1 January 2005). "What's wrong with single hypotheses? Why it is time for Strong-Inference-PLUS". Scientist (Philadelphia, Pa.). 19 (21): 10. PMC 2048741free to read. PMID 17975652. 
  3. ^ William O'Donohue and Jeffrey A Buchanan (2001). "The weaknesses of strong inference". Behavior and Philosophy. 
  4. ^ Rowland H. Davis (2006). "Strong Inference: rationale or inspiration?". Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. 49 (2): 238–250. doi:10.1353/pbm.2006.0022. PMID 16702707.