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Experiment!: Planning, Implementing and Interpreting by Oivind Andersson

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10.7 Thought Experiments

Once hypotheses have been generated it is time to start to evaluate and test them. The final test is often an actual experiment but many ideas can be evaluated and refuted just by thinking about them. Thought experiments are means for exploring the logical structure of a problem and can be very powerful tools for testing ideas. They use imaginary scenarios to understand features of the real world.

We often think that we are unable to make statements about a certain problem if we do not have basic knowledge of the specific problem area. For example, you may not think that you are able to find out what is wrong in the central heating system in your house if you are not a plumber. As a matter of fact we all have general knowledge about the world, both from experience and theoretical knowledge. Based on this we can exclude possibilities, since we also know how the world does not behave. You intuitively understand that pipes transporting water to the radiators of your heating system should be warm, for instance, and that pipes leading away from them should be slightly less warm. Such knowledge can be used for troubleshooting even without detailed knowledge of the internal workings of heat pumps, furnaces or what have you to heat your house. In the same manner, your general knowledge can be used for troubleshooting theoretical ideas. If an idea inevitably leads to a paradox, there is strong reason to believe that the idea is wrong. The cause-and-effect table ...

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