The Learner's Guide to Geospatial Analysis

General Approaches to Problem Solving Utilizing Hypotheses


Science follows at least three general methods of problem solving using hypotheses. These can be called the:

  • method of the ruling theory
  • method of the working hypothesis
  • method of multiple working hypotheses

The first two are the most popular but they can lead to overlooking relevant perspectives, data, and encourage biases. It has been suggested that multiple hypotheses offers a more effective way of overcoming this problem.

Ruling Theories and Working Hypotheses

Our desire to reach an explanation commonly leads us to a tentative interpretation that is based on a single case. The explanation can blind us to other possibilities that we ignored at first glance. This premature explanation can become a ruling theory, and our research becomes focused on proving that ruling theory. The result is a bias to evidence that disproves the ruling theory or supports an alternate explanation. Only if the original hypothesis was by chance correct does our analysis lead to any meaningful intelligence work. The working hypothesis is supposed to be a hypothesis to be tested, not in order to prove the hypothesis, but as a stimulus for study and fact-finding. Nonetheless, the single working hypothesis can become a ruling theory, and the desire to prove the working hypothesis, despite evidence to the contrary, can become as strong as the desire to prove the ruling theory.

Multiple Hypotheses

The method of multiple working hypotheses involves the development, prior to our search for evidence, of several hypotheses that might explain what are attempting to explain. Many of these hypotheses should be contradictory, so that many will prove to be improbable. However, the development of multiple hypotheses prior to the intelligence analysis lets us avoid the trap of the ruling hypothesis and thus makes it more likely that our intelligence work will lead to meaningful results. We open-mindedly envision all the possible explanations of the events, including the possibility that none of the hypotheses are plausible and the possibility that more research and hypothesis development is needed. The method of multiple working hypotheses has several other beneficial effects on intelligence analysis. Human actions are often the result of several factors, not just one, and multiple hypotheses make it more likely that we will see the interaction of the several factors. The beginning with multiple hypotheses also promotes much greater thoroughness than analysis directed toward one hypothesis, leading to analytic lines that we might otherwise overlook, and thus to evidence and insights that might never have been considered. Thirdly, the method makes us much more likely to see the imperfections in our understanding and thus to avoid the pitfall of accepting weak or flawed evidence for one hypothesis when another provides a more possible explanation.

Drawbacks of Multiple Hypotheses

Multiple hypotheses have drawbacks. One is that it is difficult to express multiple hypotheses simultaneously, and therefore there is a natural tendency to favor one. Another problem is developing a large number of hypotheses that can be tested. A third possible problem is that of the indecision that arises as an analyst balances the evidence for various hypotheses, which is likely preferable to the premature rush to a false conclusion.