Oceanography The Official Magazine of
The Oceanography Society
Volume 17 Issue 04

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Volume 17, No. 4
Pages 8 - 13

COMMENTARY • Observation, Hypothesis-Testing, and Discovery in Oceanography

Tom Anderson
First Paragraph

Discovery lies at the very heart of scientific endeavor. It heralds progress, the march of science in uncovering the mysteries of the world that surrounds us. But how do discoveries come about? “By observation, of course” is the simple answer, nature being an open book with new discoveries beckoning at every call. This attitude, the curiosity and desire to observe nature in her original form, turned naturalists into explorers. In the early days of oceanography, these brave souls travelled far and wide in search of exotic creatures and plants, marvelling at their beauty and diversity. Yet today, such a cavalier approach is likely to be frowned upon, particularly by the philosophers of science. They emphasize the importance of hypothesis-driven research, in which questions are formulated and then subject to test by experiment. Observation is subordinate. In this article I will elaborate these issues and argue that, despite the criticisms of the philosophers, observation is an essential prerequisite to identifying and understanding the complex patterns and trends of variability in the ocean. It is therefore central to the progress of oceanography today, complemented by hypothesis-driven studies focusing on cause and effect.


Anderson, T.R. 2004. Essay: Observation, hypothesis-testing, and discovery in oceanography. Oceanography 17(4):8–13, https://doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2004.17.