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Re: [ontolog-forum] Time representation

To: "[ontolog-forum]" <ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
From: Ed Barkmeyer <edbark@xxxxxxxx>
Date: Thu, 24 Jan 2008 12:30:57 -0500
Message-id: <4798CB51.8020603@xxxxxxxx>
Chris Partridge wrote:    (01)

> Among philosophers of science, I believe that the notion of fruitfulness is
> reasonably well established. Examples of it would be applications of a
> theory to things that the progenitor had no conception of when he or she put
> the theory forward. There are lots of quoted examples from Newton's and
> Einstein's work. There is also a lot of material on the web (and ones local
> library), if one has time to research it. I understand that among many
> working scientists fruitfulness in this sense is regarded as a key test of
> whether a theory is good/useful or not - so at least some people hold it in
> high regard.    (02)

But surely this is always in hindsight.  Mathematicians and physicists, 
like software engineers, have some sense of "elegance" in developing a 
new theory, but elegance doesn't guarantee fruitfulness.  150 years 
later, we can say that simple atomic theory was fruitful, even though we 
now know that simple atomic theory was a vast oversimplification of 
atomic physics.  OTOH, plate tectonics was rejected for 50 years, until 
we were able to make enough reliable seismic measurements to see that it 
actually explained them -- in a sense, it was experimentally validated.    (03)

At the other end of the spectrum, we have Lee De Forest, who fiddled 
around with vacuum tube arrangements until he found one that did a 
better job of picking up radio waves than Marconi's device.  It was a 
very fruitful invention, even though it was founded on very little, and 
mostly erroneous, understanding of the actual phenomenon.  Fruitfulness 
isn't restricted to carefully developed theories.  10 years later, Edwin 
Armstrong developed a theory that explained how the device actually 
functioned, and went on to make much better ones, but (patent disputes 
aside) he started from De Forest's accidental insight.  Many assert that 
Armstrong's work is what made De Forest's "audion tube" fruitful, but 
the value of a theory or device to the later work of others is how we 
define "fruitful".    (04)

What we are talking about in this forum is design, not prophecy.  An 
engineer designs a device to perform a particular function, to be "fit 
for a purpose".  A scientist devises a theory to be consistent with all 
the knowledge s/he has and to explain/predict a particular set of 
phenomena (i.e., to be fit for those purposes).  Similarly, we can 
design an ontology to be consistent with all the knowledge we have and 
to be fit for a set of known purposes.  Any fruitfulness beyond that is 
serendipity, in all cases.  And it is probably fair to say that 
fruitfulness will be a function of:
  (a) the quality and extent of the knowledge we had at the outset
  (b) the insight we had that generated the design/theory/ontology
  (c) the acceptance and use of the design/theory/ontology by others, 
whether purposefully, grudgingly, or unwittingly.    (05)

One designs for fitness to a set of known purposes, not for potential 
"fruitfulness".  (It is my impression that Matthew and Paola almost 
agreed to that.)    (06)

I have seen a number of instances of persons who design a theory to 
support what they understand well and also phenomena for which they have 
some awareness but no expertise.  Without exception, those theories have 
been useless or counterproductive for the extended phenomena. (What 
inevitably happens is that the proponents force the square pegs in the 
extended domain into the round holes in the theory, thereby divorcing 
the theoretical results from the realities.)  My former mentor, the late 
Dr. Selden Stewart, described this effort to achieve fruitfulness beyond 
one's knowledge domain as "the seductiveness of simple cases", a form of 
"false induction": the theory works for lots of simple cases that we are 
now familiar with; therefore it must work for more complex cases that we 
haven't studied so well.  The examples include the unix (v5) model of 
peripheral stores, reactive hierarchical control, object modeling, 
reusable components, orchestrated processes, and several bizarre ideas 
that have wrecked adoption of what might have been worthwhile standards. 
  So I would in fact caution *against* attempts to design for 
"fruitfulness" beyond one's domain of expertise.    (07)

-Ed    (08)

P.S. In 1994, the UK editor of ISO 10303-11 (the information modeling 
language EXPRESS) announced the results of a survey of needs for version 
2, and the set was so diverse in direction that I asked whether he had 
in mind one project or two.  The editor said, "one, of course", and the 
senior U.S. delegate (Peter Wilson, of Boeing) said, "Oh, I was sure you 
would say two."  A German delegate asked why Peter thought there should 
be two projects, and Peter answered, "Because I have the grey hair, 
that's why."  (And OBTW, 7 years later, the "one" project failed.)    (09)

Edward J. Barkmeyer                        Email: edbark@xxxxxxxx
National Institute of Standards & Technology
Manufacturing Systems Integration Division
100 Bureau Drive, Stop 8263                Tel: +1 301-975-3528
Gaithersburg, MD 20899-8263                FAX: +1 301-975-4694    (010)

"The opinions expressed above do not reflect consensus of NIST,
  and have not been reviewed by any Government authority."    (011)

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