By—James L. Mazerat and Robert A.

AS OUR PROFESSION PROGRESSES towards more of a science-based profession, most investigators are embracing the methodology suggested in the scientific method as the process one can use in answering questions as to the origin and cause of a fire or explosion. Where there have been numerous articles explaining the procedure as to what are the steps and how testing is done, there has been little explanation of what is behind the terms, hypothesis and hypothesis testing. As our knowledge increases, we develop a better understanding that allows one to be more comfortable in performing to process. The purpose behind the development and testing of a hypothesis is to assist the investigator in lowering his or her potential error rate when reaching a conclusion. Different documents are not uniform regarding the number of steps in the scientific method, but they all contain basic components the investigator must complete if the process is to be valid. Phrases used in describing the procedure “Developing a Hypothesis,” and “Testing Your Hypothesis” has become synonymous with the proper procedures to be followed in reaching a conclusion. When it comes to the word “Hypothesis” or the term, “Testing a Hypothesis” investigators, like many other persons first hearing these terms, do not understand the meaning, and therefore take a negative position when hearing it used. Like anything new there is a hesitant in accepting and working within the process. It is natural with any process; the more comfortable a person is, the more the acceptable that person is to performing the task in a specific way. It is for this reason, it is important for the investigator, not only have a good working knowledge about how to perform the task, but understand the reasoning behind the tasks. To do this one needs to answer the following questions. What is a “Hypothesis,” and what does the term “Testing the Hypothesis mean? A hypothesis is nothing more than a suggested explanation of an event or reasoned proposal suggesting a possible correlation between multiple events that took place ending with the incident taking place. The hypothesis testing process is nothing more than a tool available to assist the investigator in reaching the correct conclusion as to the cause of the incident. The objective of the testing process is to reach a point that after all testing there is no negative influence on the final hypothesis because of the testing. It is understood that through the testing process, some testing will disprove the suggested hypothesis, but the important factor is, when this process is used and the testing cannot disprove the hypothesis the investigator then has a viable explanation for what took place during the fire or explosion incident. For a hypothesis to be valid, it must be testable through experiment or a cognitive process1. Everyone knows the meaning of the word experiment, but how many understand the meaning of the word “Cognitive”? With one’s use of the scientific method in conducting the investigations of different incidents, one will hear and see the word “Cognitive” many times where there is a discussion of hypothesis testing. The cognitive process is the manipulation of events, concepts, images, thoughts or other symbolic material in the mind. The cognitive process is the higher mental processes of reasoning, planning and problem solving2. This is nothing more than a systematic progression from “Testing the Hypothesis,” to “Cognitive Process” and finely to the meat of the subject “Problem Solving.” The investigation of a fire is nothing more than solving a specific problem through the identification of the reason for the incident. Now we take this process one-step further when it comes to the scientific method of problem solving, here there are three components to address, the collection of data, the development of a hypothesis, and the testing of the hypothesis. It must be recognized that not all persons perform the functions necessary to complete these tasks in the same way, and the difference in the way the task is preformed, in most case, does not have a direct relationship to the accuracy of the findings. Any hypotheses, which one expresses as being a scientific hypothesis, must be testable within the abilities of science, because, without the support of science, the hypothesis remains simply an idea without use3. The hypothesis one develops after collecting all available data must also predict that certain events will occur if certain events take place within a specific time and order. Once there is a hypothesis, there needs to be a method to determine if this hypothesis is supportable, and to do this we test the hypothesis with the idea of disproving the hypothesis. In the general scientific community, there is a consensus of the theory that proof in science cannot be attained, however the more critical the test that the hypothesis passes, the more confidence we can have in the hypothesis4,5. When a fire investigator develops a single idea, model, or hypothesis to explain a set of observations, it must be understood that this method is fraught with many pitfalls that can lead to incorrect conclusions. First, a fire investigator with a single hypothesis is like a hen with one chick, she defends this one chick because it is the only one that she possesses. Second, data that does not fit the hypothesis is easy to ignore because there is no other place to use it, and this can lead to the discarding of correct data. The data collected must support the hypothesis, yet the investigator must understand the best-supported hypothesis can still fail on a single critical observation. Third, a fire investigator with a single hypothesis has his or her ego at stake, and thus resists counter hypotheses made by other investigators or data available. Because fire investigators are like everyday people, when it comes to their egos, there is resistance to alternative hypotheses, resulting in a loss of objectivity, and sometimes bitterness ensue and controversy abound when others try to disprove that individual’s hypothesis6.


It is very important for one to understand that in testing a hypothesis, one can only disprove the hypothesis, and the hypothesis itself can never be proven correct beyond all doubt. Not disproving the hypothesis through testing does not guarantee the hypothesis is correct, because the results of testing only mean the data used in the testing process was insufficient to disprove the hypothesis at the time of the testing7. Albert Einstein, because of his profession as an inventor, had much experience with the development and testing process when it came to a hypothesis, and in doing so he said, “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.” One only need to look at the changes brought about due to the advancement of science over the last couple of decades to understand how the development of new facts to be used in the test of an accepted hypothesis will now prove that hypothesis incorrect. In reaching a conclusion, the investigator must be satisfied he or she did everything possible to determine that none of the available data will disprove their hypothesis. In the testing process, an investigator can use information from many different sources to conduct this evaluation. The investigator can discuss the options with others in their profession, conduct experiments, or conduct research based on work produced by others, because, the more diverse the sources one uses in conducting evaluations or testing, the greater the anticipated degree of accuracy in the hypothesis test process. Many investigators fail to think outside the box, and design the testing of their hypothesis on a specific document, such as NFPA 921. While different schools, books, and other documents will aid an investigator in evaluating a hypothesis, these sources may not contain all the information available on the subject. Because each incident is so specific, there is little chance one book or a document will give the investigator all the information needed to develop and then conduct the testing of the hypothesis. As one finds disagreement in different test, it is also a misconception for an investigator to believe it is possible to get everyone to agree with the hypothesis developed. There will always be someone who will disagree with the hypothesis developed by the investigator, for the reason that fire investigation is not an exact science, and it is not possible to replicate what took place during an incident. This occurs because of the factor that one must use their perception of their observations to reach a hypothesis, and two people have different perceptions after viewing the same object; there will always be the potential for disagreement. The best process to use when developing a hypothesis is the “Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses,” which contain simultaneous and continuous development and testing of a number of hypotheses. The method of multiple working hypotheses is when a fire investigator thinks of all possible hypotheses that might account for his or her observations, and then goes on to test each one that has been developed. When it comes to testing each hypothesis developed through your observations at the scene, it is not necessary that there be a physical testing process for each one. While you are performing any task, your brain is constantly gathering information based on your observations, testing this data using data it has stored, and then reaching a conclusion. The testing is all taking place in your mind, and this to some extent takes place as you conduct your investigation. Using this method of continuous multiple working hypotheses the investigator is attaching his or her ego, not to a single hypothesis, but to the development and testing of all of the possible hypotheses. The importance of understanding this methodology is the most efficient known method of advancing science through hypothesis and theories. Because it is accepted that one can never prove the hypothesis and theories in science only disprove them, the true answer may never be attainable, but the supporting evidence, resistance to disproof, and the logical data from the findings that fit with other scientific knowledge on the subject can provide the investigator with a specific degree of confidence in the conclusion. By elevating the degree of confidence about a conclusion, a fire investigator can make

a valuable decision about the issues even if an answer does not have a high level of certainty8. Remembering one only develops a hypothesis only after evaluating all available data, and then from this information the person has a number of different ways to test the hypothesis. There are three ways for one to go about in disproving a hypothesis. These are: 1. What is found contradicts the hypothesis. 2. In replicating the event, the same base data fails to reproduce the same event. 3. It is supplanted by a new hypothesis, which explains more of the data, or explains the same data more elegantly9. If fire investigation were a pure science, which allowed a control of all environments making replication possible, it would be easy to test a hypothesis by running a test using the same data. The idea of this type of testing being practical can be determined through the results of the testing conducted by Daniel Madrzykowski at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). In the report, he indicates it was not possible to produce general pattern consensus while reproducing the same scenario. There were cases where the replicated experiments also produced some significant differences in the severity of burning, locations of patterns and types of patterns present10. If all testing of a hypothesis is done with the intention of disproving the hypothesis, then a single test, if confirmed, may disprove a hypothesis, but it cannot prove the hypothesis to be correct. A given series of tests may corroborate the hypothesis, but a subsequent experiment under different conditions may disprove it. With this being possible, there always exists the possibility that even though one performs all the testing possible to confirm his or her hypothesis, another person can develop new test criteria that disproves the hypothesis. It is for this reason, no matter what the status of the investigation; one must be willing to re-evaluate the hypothesis using the different criteria. It is a consensus in the scientific community that there is no absolute knowledge in science, there is only progress, which is optimistically a progression towards a more complete and accurate understanding of the event. From our past, we have seen many times that new observations will cause changes in current scientific opinions, or the development of better theories. Some hypotheses offer such strong predictions, and withstand testing for such a long period of time, that data becomes generally accepted, first as “theories” and then as “laws of science.” However, even these are not “absolute,” In that a scientific law is just a “very strongly supported inference.” We do not know, with any degree of certainty that any one theory or hypothesis will survive in the light of new data or technology. As an example, for how many years were we taught the certainty that Pluto was a planet? Until recently, this hypothesis was correct, but now there are a number of scientists claiming there is new data that does in fact disprove this hypothesis. Presently, others are testing the data used to develop their hypothesis on the subject. An investigator must be careful when evaluating his or others hypothesis not to let a bias interfere with how the hypothesis tested11. There are a number of different kinds of bias for the investigator to recognize if the assessment of the hypothesis is to be valid, and for this reason, the person conducting the evaluation of the hypothesis must take time to consider their process and determine if any of these biases are present before conducting the review12. Another bias is known as “Anchoring,” which is a term used in psychology to describe the tendency persons have to rely heavily, or “anchor,” on one piece of information or knowledge when conducting an evaluation of their own or another’s hypothesis. During the normal evaluation process, individuals will find themselves anchoring their


ideas to a specific selection of facts or information and they then tend to make adjustments using those predetermined facts to adjust the data used in their evaluation of the hypothesis. The problem with anchoring is that once the individual has set the anchor, there becomes a bias to which the information is the only correct data. This reaction may cause the discarding of relevant data13. A cognitive bias is one that includes a wide range of affects on the person during the problem solving process. These affects include very basic statistical, social attribution, and memory errors that are common to all human beings. The purpose in designing the scientific method is to minimize the affect of biases relating to probability and decision making from any one observer. Conformation bias is the concept that says because we like to be right, humans will instinctually seek out information to confirm what they believe to be true, even if the evidence may be flawed. Hopefully, investigators today have come to grips with this, for even if something does not seem true, it may yet be. Trying to force investigations to fit a perceived outcome, either by stifling other ideas or giving in to conformation bias, will not produce good scientific results. Instead, investigators must treat the investigation process by applying the same scientific methods to them as to any other theory.

In conclusion, it is more important that all hypotheses developed during the investigation go through a testing process, and that the investigator must be careful to address all possible biases that could reflect on the hypothesis. Only when the investigator has used all available data to test multiple different hypotheses, and none of the testing disproves the hypothesis, should he/she give any validity to a specific hypothesis. In using logical inference to develop a conclusion, the investigator must consider all possible serious challenges. The investigator should discard any hypothesis, after an examination by the deductive reasoning method, shows it is incorrect. It can take many years before there is data of such quality that it will disprove a hypothesis, so just the fact that it is not disproved at this time, does not mean it will always be correct. The investigator must be willing to accept all challenges to his or her hypothesis, and be willing to use this new information to repeat the testing process on their hypothesis. There is nothing wrong with re-examining one’s conclusion, for it is far more damaging to all involved to be wrong in one’s conclusion and continue to try to support that conclusion. Remember, testing of the hypothesis one hundred times may never disprove the validity of the hypothesis, but testing using new data on the one hundred and first time may disprove its accuracy. It is more important at the end to be correct. ●

REFERENCES 1. Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigation, Section 4.3.6, 2004 2. Formal Description of the Cognitive Process of Problem Solving, Vincent Chiew, Yingxu Wang, icci, pp. 74-83, Third IEEE International Conference on Cognitive Informatics (ICCI’04), 2004 3. Hypothesis, J.L. Stanbough, 2007, 4. A Gentle Reminder that a Hypothesis is Never Proven Correct, nor is a Theory Ever Proven to Be True, Jacqueline McLaughlin, Journal of College Science Teaching, September 2006 5. Creative Paleontology, Jere Lipps, University of California, Berkeley, November 15, 2000 6. This is Science, Lipps, J. H. 1999., In Scotchmoor, J., and Springer, D. A. (Eds.), Evolution: Investigating the Evidence. Paleontological Society Special Publication, vol. 9, p. 3-16. 7. The Scientific Method, M. J. Malchowski, Phd.,, 1999 8. Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses, T. C. Chamberland, Journal of Geology in 1897, BC/chamberlin.html, 9. What is Science, by Bruce H. Tiffney UC Santa Barbara, 10. State-of-the-Art Research is the Future of Fire Investigation, Daniel Madrzykowski, Building and Fire Research Laboratory, National Institute of Standards and Technology 11. Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. (1974). Science, 185, 1124-1130 12. WHAT WAS HE THINKING? BEYOND BIAS—TO DECISION MAKING AND JUDGING, Mike Johns, Assistant U.S. Attorney and Senior Litigation Counsel, Serious Accident Investigations course, BLM National Training Center, Phoenix, AZ., 2007 13. Playing Dice With Criminal Sentences: The Influence of Irrelevant Anchors on Experts’ Judicial Decision Making, Brite Englich, Pers Soc Psychol Bull, February 1, 2006; 32(2): 188 - 200.

ROBERT GREEN is a Senior Investigator with the New Orleans office of Unified Investigations & Sciences, Inc. Mr. Green has over 20 years of experience in fire investigations, which include investigations in both the criminal and civil arenas. While servicing in the public sector Mr. Green was a detective with the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office responsible for fire investigations. During his employment with Unified Investigations & Sciences, Inc., Mr. Green has been involved in the investigation of some of the largest fire incidents to occur in the United States, such as the McFrugal’s Distribution Center, the largest reported fire loss in 1996, the Motor Yacht Ulysses, the largest luxury yacht built in the United States since World War II, and the Aljoma Lumber Company facility in Ponce, Puerto Rico. JAMES MAZERAT is the Territorial Manager of the New Orleans office of Unified Investigations & Sciences, Inc. Mr. Mazerat has been involved with the determination of the origin and causes of fires for over 35 years. During his career with the fire service he served as both a full-time employee and a volunteer. During his 30 years of activity in the fire service, he attained the rank of Chief of the fire district he served. While performing his activities as a volunteer he worked full time as an origin and cause investigator in the private industry. He has conducted investigations internationally for private insurers and has served on the National Fire Protection Association’s Committee on Fire Investigations from 1986 to 1996 and was involved with the development of NFPA 921 during its first two cycles. He was called on by Lloyds of London to head the investigation into two of their largest cargo losses in the United States, McFrugal’s Distribution Center in New Orleans, Louisiana ($20,000,000), and Cardinal Distributors in Phoenix, Arizona ($456,000,000).



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