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Good theories are possible

Iris van Rooij
Radboud University, Nijmegen ~ Donders Centre for Cognition, Department of Artificial Intelligence

A common adage is ‘good theories make testable predictions’, which fits a view of science as progressing solely via the empirical cycle (i.e. the iterative process of revising theories by deriving and testing predictions). This view has led, however, to a relative neglect of good theory building prior to testing. Even in subfields strong in theory, such as mathematical psychology and computational cognitive science, theories are put to empirical tests without considering if they provide possible explanations for target phenomena. We may come away thinking our theories are empirically supported while the processes they postulate are in fact impossible. I use one species of impossibility -- intractability – as an illustration. I will distill some general lessons and conclude that the empirical cycle is best complemented by an equally important theoretical cycle (i.e. the iterative process of refining theories to postulate only possible processes).





Theory development
how can we judge good theories? Last updated 2 years ago

Cool talk! Thanks for sharing your ideas and also these free resources. I was wondering how we can decide on the merits of different theories if it is not be testing them. Because in the end, all theories are wrong in some way, but I think that the extent to which they can make new predictions that we can test is then a way to adjudicate between th...

Dr. Marieke Van Vugt 2 comments

You say theories are not for prediction, but for explanation. I agree wholeheartedly with this statement. I would like to offer three arguments against the claim “theories are for prediction” and get your reaction to them. Each one turns on the relationship between theories and data, or rather between data and theories. What is the purpose of data,...

Dr. Sashank Varma 5 comments
Inspiration from other fields? Last updated 2 years ago

Thanks so much for this great talk. I was just wondering why this seems "New" for Psychological Sciences when e.g. EvoDevo or comparative psychology is very much aware of those constraints. I teach about Tinbergen's 4 questions and that any theory is bound by those 6 constraints you mentioned. Just curious (my PhD was in cognitive / theoretical neu...

Prof. Gerit Pfuhl 1 comment
Cite this as:

van Rooij, I. (2020, July). Good theories are possible. Paper presented at Virtual MathPsych/ICCM 2020. Via