Home > Uncategorized > Experiment, replicate, replicate, replicate,…

Experiment, replicate, replicate, replicate,…

Popular science writing often talks about how one experiment proved this-or-that theory or disproved ‘existing theories’. In practice, it takes a lot more than one experiment before people are willing to accept a new theory or drop an existing theory. Many, many experiments are involved, but things need to be simplified for a popular audience and so one experiment emerges to represent the pivotal moment.

The idea of one experiment being enough to validate a theory has seeped into the world view of software engineering (and perhaps other domains as well). This thinking is evident in articles where one experiment is cited as proof for this-or-that and I am regularly asked what recommendations can be extracted from the results discussed in my empirical software book (which contains very few replications, because they rarely exist). This is a very wrong.

A statistically significant experimental result is a positive signal that the measured behavior might be real. The space of possible experiments is vast and any signal that narrows the search space is very welcome. Multiple replication, by others and with variations on the experimental conditions (to gain an understanding of limits/boundaries), are needed first to provide confidence the behavior is repeatable and then to provide data for building practical models.

Psychology is currently going through a replication crisis. The incentive structure for researchers is not to replicate and for journals not to publish replications. The Reproducibility Project is doing some amazing work.

Software engineering has had an experiment problem for decades (the problem is lack of experiments), but this is slowly starting to change. A replication problem is in the future.

Single experiments do have uses other than helping to build a case for a theory. They can be useful in ruling out proposed theories; results that are very different from those predicted can require ideas to be substantially modified or thrown away.

In the short term (i.e., at least the next five years) the benefit of experiments is in ruling out possibilities, as well as providing general pointers to the possible shape of things. Theories backed by substantial replications are many years away.

  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

A question to answer *