nicholas_a_christakis's picture
Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science, Yale University; Co-author, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives

There is an old word in our language, equipoise, which has been around since at least the 16th century—when it meant something like “an equal distribution of weight.” With respect to science, it means, roughly, standing at the foot of a valley and not knowing which way is best to proceed to get up high—poised between alternative theories and ideas about which, given current information, one is neutral.

Use of the word peaked around 1840, and declined roughly five-fold since then, according to Google Ngram, though it appears to be enjoying an incipient resurgence in the last decade. But attention to equipoise ought to be greater. 

The concept found a new application in the 1980s, when ethicists were searching for deep justifications for the conduct of randomized clinical trials in medicine. A trial was only justified, they rightly argued, when the doctors and researchers doing the trial (and the medical knowledge they were relying on) saw the new drug or its alternative (a placebo, perhaps) as potentially equally good. If those doing the research felt otherwise, how could they justify the trial? Was it ethical to place patients at risk of harm to do research if doctors had reason to suppose that one course of action might be materially better than another?

So equipoise is a state of equilibrium, where a scientist cannot be sure which of the alternatives he or she is contemplating might be true.

In my view, it is related to that famous Popperian sine qua non of science itself: falsifiability. Something is not science if it is not capable of disproof. We cannot even imagine an experiment that would disprove the existence of God—so that is what makes a belief in God religion. When Einstein famously conjectured that matter and energy warp the fabric of space and time itself, experiments to test the claim were not possible, but they were at least imaginable, and the theory was capable of disproof. And, eventually, he was proven right, first based on astronomical observations regarding the orbit of Mercury, and most recently by the magnificent discovery at LIGO of gravitational waves from the collision of two black holes over a billion years ago. Yet, even if he had been wrong, his conjecture would still have been scientific.

If falsifiability solves the “problem of demarcation” that Popper identified between science and non-science, equipoise addresses the problem of origin: Where ought scientists start from? Thinking about where scientists do—and should—start from is often lacking. Too often, we simply begin from where we are.

In some ways, therefore, equipoise is an antecedent condition to falsifiability. It is a state we can be in before we hazard a guess that we might test. It is not quite a state of ignorance, but rather a state of quasi-neutrality, when glimmers of ideas enter our minds.

Scientific equipoise tends to characterize fields both early and late in their course, for different reasons. Early in a field or in a new area of research, it is often true that little is known about anything, so any direction can seem promising, and might actually be productive. An exciting neutrality prevails. Late in the exploration of a field, much is known, and so it might be hard to head towards new things, or the new things, even if true, might be rather small or unimportant. An oppressive neutrality can rule.

My reasons for thinking that this concept ought to be more widely known is that equipoise carries with it aspects of science that remain sorely needed these days. It connotes judgment—for it asks what problems are worthy of consideration. It connotes humility—for we do not know what lies ahead. It connotes open vistas—because it looks out at the unknown. It connotes discovery—because, whatever way forward we choose, we will learn something. And it connotes risk—because it is sometimes dangerous to embark on such a journey. 

Equipoise is a state of hopeful ignorance, the quiet before the storm of discovery.