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A potential masters thesis advisor became pretty famous (in his field) for the development of a certain theory in behavioral economics. However, I find that his theory is relatively unexplainable, and I feel that I have come up with an alternative theory that would explain the exact same phenomena, but in a more justifiable way.

Knowing very little about how thesis advisors view their students' work or the dominance of their own theories, I see two possibilities:

First, my theory might not be very good and my professor will either point out the flaw, or encourage me to continue developing the flawed theory because it's better than nothing.

Second, my theory may actually be pretty good and my professor may view it with hostility, consciously or subconsciously. Is it unreasonable for me to consider this a possibility? Is it a possibility? How likely is it?

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    3rd: Your explanation is far better, and your prof is man (and scientist) enough to just plain admit that.
    – Karl
    Dec 31 '20 at 9:04
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    If your advisor is an expert in this area, then he would be the best one to evaluate your alternative hypothesis, and help you develop it. If you aren't comfortable discussing it with him, or he isn't open to discussing it with you, then the two of you aren't likely to make a good team. Since he's only a potential advisor, raising this now would be a good idea, so you know what you're getting into.
    – Tyler
    Dec 31 '20 at 21:50
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    I don't know why the answers aren't mentioning this, but in my experience, some senior academics (certainly not all, but certainly more than one that I know personally) are extremely resistant to having their ideas questioned by younger people. They might get angry, or they might see it as an annoying hassle to be avoided at all costs, or in a student-advisor situation they might simply demand the student work on a different idea. You should make sure you don't get into this situation. Have a frank talk to the potential advisor and make sure they like the project before committing to anything.
    – Nathaniel
    Jan 1 at 12:37
  • You know the old adage about academia: the politics are so great because the stakes are so low. Tread with caution.
    – satnhak
    Jan 1 at 18:19
  • @Karl wow you are so supportive and at the same time (insert opposite but not polar opposite of cynical)
    – BCLC
    Jan 1 at 21:05
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There is no predicting personality without close study, but if the person is a true scholar they will welcome an advance, even if it refutes something they did earlier.

No, hostility isn't an unreasonable possibility. But whether it is likely depends on the person. Impossible to say how likely. You are in a better position to judge, knowing them. Are they insecure? Do they welcome a challenge? Are they fair and honest?

But it would probably be better to approach them with a questioning attitude rather than one making bold claims. After all, you might be wrong, as you say. And you should be sure of the wider literature. Has the theory been validated by others? Accepted as fact?

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    Is there any empirical way to determine which of your two explanations is correct? For example, is there some phenomenon D that definitely depends on B but not A (or vice versa), that could be used to argue one way or the other?
    – mweiss
    Dec 31 '20 at 1:30
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    @Dion An example of Buffy's suggestion for a questioning attitude might be to approach the advisor instead as "if we perform (this experiment), result (a) will provide evidence that changes in A are most important for C, otherwise result (b) will provide evidence that changes in B are most important for C." The results should inform your thesis conclusions, not a goal to support or refute a particular theory. It seems like you're starting with the conclusion.
    – Bryan Krause
    Dec 31 '20 at 1:43
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    @Dion: It may also be helpful to ask your professor a question such as "As far as I understand your theory, it says that C changes because of A. But it appears to me that C could also change because of B. Can you help me understand why your theory focuses on A and not on B?" It may well be that you have misunderstood your professor's theory, or that your professor already knows about B and has good reason to discount it. Or it may be that your professor never considered B. But if you're seriously considering writing a thesis about this, you definitely want that input from your professor.
    – Kevin
    Dec 31 '20 at 8:45
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    A cynic might ask whether any theory in a subject like behavioral economics is provable or refutable at all.
    – alephzero
    Dec 31 '20 at 20:41
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    @Buffy nothing is ever proven in physics. The models are merely "good enough". But you really cannot compare "good enough" for physics and economics. Jan 1 at 4:06
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The danger lies in the collateral damage that your refutation (and better, probably simpler hypothesis) does: Your prof might have other projects running which rely on his original theory.

Check if that's the case, and discuss with the people who are working on it.

Your prof and the others will either stubbornly defend their original approach (because their work&paychecks are threatened), or they see that it's dangerous to go on with a bad approach, which might end in rejected papers, failed theses, and loss of followup projects, and are glad you found out and want you to help fix it. (All assuming you're right with your analysis.)

If there is not much money riding on it currently, the prof might just be delighted to advise you on a thesis. If the old theory was widely know and used, this will mean he (+you) can write a lot of new papers which will surely get highly cited.

Or of course he might tell you to brush off with your stupid ideas and find another advisor. Well, at least then you know about that.

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My answer doesn't speak directly to the situation with your potential advisor: I think that depends on your presentation of your approach, and the advisor's personality (I agreed that it does have the potential to backfire). I want to discuss the challenges you are likely to experience with this situation

his theory is relatively unexplainable ... [my] alternative theory ... would explain the exact same phenomena, but in a more justifiable way

If the two frameworks explain the exact same phenomena, then which version you (or your potential advisor) prefer is a matter of taste, or style. "More justifiable" is a value judgement. As an example, this issue is IMO) largely what drove the loud arguments in the evolutionary biology community over Nowak, Tarnita and Wilson (2010)'s theoretical reframing of the evolution of eusociality (species with extreme cooperation where only a small number of individuals in the group reproduce). Nowak et al. say their method

represents a simpler and superior approach, allows the evaluation of multiple competing hypotheses, and provides an exact framework for interpreting empirical observations

... but they do not say "explains previously unexplained phenomena" or "makes different empirically testable predictions". Their approach may indeed be "better" on some aesthetic grounds (mathematical rigor, simplicity, explainability [at least for some subset of potential users]), but if there is no concrete advantage over the previous approach, then many researchers will resist giving up the old way (and not without some justification).

Disclaimers:

  • I have not read the Nowak/Tarnita/Wilson work, or the rebuttals, carefully enough to form my own opinion about which I prefer. However, I think my characterization of the political/philosophical issues here is reasonably accurate
  • reframings that give a different perspective on the same set of empirical observations can be interesting and valuable, and may lead to deeper/novel insights; it's just hard to argue for them a priori

Nowak, Martin A., Corina E. Tarnita, and Edward O. Wilson. “The Evolution of Eusociality.” Nature 466, no. 7310 (August 2010): 1057–62. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature09205.

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Be humble. It’s very possible and exciting that you might have found a weakness in his theory. But, beyond finding an error in a theorem and thus establishing them as incorrect on their own terms, theories in fields like behavioural economics are not ‘refutable’ per se. They are all wrong. Rather they often seek to explain important features of behaviour with minimal parameters. Obviously, we don’t know what the theory is or what your posited replacement is, but If your theory adds complexity it will perhaps explain more; but perhaps not enough more to be worth the additional complication. Such an exercise seems like a great masters dissertation, and unlikely ruffle your advisor’s feathers. But, presenting it as an alternative to be investigated rather than a rebuttal will be more likely to receive a positive response. Remember your advisor, and many others, have thought hard about this for a long time, and while you may have had an important insight, it’s also possible to recognise that your idea is on the long list of things that could be reasonably done but has never made it to the top of anyone’s to-do list. Or indeed, that there is some conceptual mistake. Whichever is true, you have everything to gain from presenting it as one of the latter two rather than as a “rebuttal” or “refutation”.

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Given that the replication crisis is a real thing I would not overthink this. As long as you provide sound (statistical) evidence that supports your theory I would not hold back.

I have encountered the same situation when writing my master's thesis. My advisor was not very well versed in statistics, disregarded basics assumptions of statistical tests like normal distribution of residuals, and disregarded adjustment for multiple comparisons and other things that are unacceptable.

So it basically boils down to this question: are you writing your thesis to please your advisor or for real science. I would suggest to go for the latter because there is already enough junk science out there.

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