The Scientific Method – It’s Not Just for Science

Sir_Isaac_Newton_(1643-1727)We all know the origin myth of science.  We’ve been told that Isaac Newton discovered the theory of gravity after an apple fell on his head. But science, to some extent, has become a belief system, and not just a method for collecting data and verifying claims.

Science, like many fields, has done some spectacular things to benefit people. But what really drives science?

  • Information Sharing
  • The Scientific Method

Science isn’t about believing any particular thing, as much as it’s about having a specific relationship with knowledge. Scientific knowledge is externally verifiable, and worth sharing with others in the effort to grow humanity’s knowledge.

The Invisible College

The Invisible College was a group of scientific researchers and natural philosophers led by Robert Boyle (famous for Boyle’s Law). They employed the scientific method of experimentation and then shared their results with one another.

Members of the Invisible College were, in a sense, the founders of the “scientific community.” Starting in the 17th century, they shared information and results with each other through writings and letters, building a corpus of knowledge.

Just for a moment, think about how different that was from previous models of information sharing.  Previously, if a researcher discovered information, that information was likely shared linearly with students, or maybe with a couple of colleagues. The whole relationship of the researcher to knowledge underwent a massive shift with the advent of science.

With the Invisible College, information was suddenly spread widely throughout Europe. The Invisible College was the immediate predecessor of the Royal Society, and is in that sense the direct ancestor of modern science.

Detail_Acad_Sciences1666When Isaac Newton wrote, “If I have seen further, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants,” he was hailing a new age of information sharing. In a philosophical sense, these natural philosophers were the forbears of today’s internet, where information is shared rapidly, allowing one scientific and technological advance after another.

The Scientific Method

The Invisible College did more than share information. The second major advance was defining what “knowledge” is. The Scientific Method, the basic way that science develops and tests information, was used as a means of validating and verifying information. These natural philosophers—early scientists—not only shared information but also agreed on what kind of information it was. Hypotheses needed to be independently verifiable. No matter who did the tests, or where, they would yield the same results every time.

Revolving_light_microscopeThe four stages of the Scientific Method are:

  1. Perform basic observations
  2. Hypothesize an explanation
  3. Test the hypothesis
  4. Analyze and interpret data

When information sharing and experimental verification are combined, suddenly we have two features that combine very powerfully: testing ideas and letting others test them. It transforms the relationship between people (scientists) from competitors to collaborators. It puts the generation of data, of knowledge, above other values, making the growth of human knowledge regarding the natural world a “higher good.”

Collaboration

We don’t even think twice about the information that the scientific community, indeed all of academia, shares. These ideas of collaboration, working together to improve the world, and the whole notion of progress, all Openness_and_Collaborationcome down to people choosing to share their findings and to grow the sum of human knowledge about the world. That’s a game-changer.

With the commitment of wild-eyed (scientific) fanatics, the early scientists set out to make something larger than themselves: a view of the world that most of us take for granted today. Chemistry, biology, physics, and all the natural sciences owe their existence to these 17th century philosophers, and their foresight in realizing that sharing information with each other would improve human knowledge in a way that withholding it would not.

The Scientific Method and You

But what seems to have been lost sometimes is the core of the Scientific Method. Science isn’t just believing in gravity, or even understanding the basic formulas that allow us to launch probes to Mars. Science, at its root, is about challenging assumptions about “what we know” and collaborating to find new ways to understand the world around us. And that isn’t just a job for people who work in laboratories. In the Information Age, where people find themselves inundated with more information than they can rationally process, the Scientific Method provides a means for understanding and parsing that information.

Lab_coatsScientifically, truth can be verified. Science can be scary because it doesn’t care what “everyone knows,” and it depends instead on what works and can be replicated.

When we find ourselves faced with challenges of understanding, with models of behavior, it is by coming back to the Scientific Method that we can get beyond winning the argument, and instead truly make progress in understanding the world.

Let’s say that we’re faced with a situation where one of two possible business processes needs to be chosen for implementation. Human nature says that we pick the one people agree on, or even the one experts agree on. Maybe we just listen to the sales pitches of the marketers. But here, you can let your inner scientist run wild and actually experiment. Experimentation is the hallmark of science.

Now, I know, you hardly need a lab coat and goggles for that kind of experiment. But we can use the Scientific Method outside of the lab. Both standardized verification of information and the sharing of information can lead us beyond competing with each other and toward effective collaboration.

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The Kool-Aid Free Diet

The phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” is popular, these days. It refers to the actions of people controlled by groupthink, usually to their own long-term detriment. “Drinking the Kool-Aid” means following a leader blindly, accepting leadership’s determinations, and promoting them as the will of the whole group.

“Drinking the Kool-Aid” is agreeing with the group, rather than subjecting decision-making to outside influences. Just imagine that you are in a meeting, and everyone decides that the best plan is to go jump off a bridge. “Drinking the Kool-Aid” means agreeing that this is an awesome plan, thus aligning yourself socially with the group. You might even volunteer for a leadership role and tweet about your promotion! Everyone seems to come to agreement, often by suppressing minority opinions to create the feeling that there is harmony within the group.

At a deeper level, “drinking the Kool-Aid” means agreeing with micro-social mores, rather than staying true to a larger sense of identity. It is an act of faith in the group and in its leaders to make good decisions. It is especially employed in situations where leadership wants to offer the image that all is well, that everyone is “on the same page,” and that the ideas being proposed are being backed by the whole group, and not simply mandated from the top.

In a competitive business environment, “drinking the Kool-Aid” becomes a survival tactic. Where getting along with the boss(es) can be more critical than making good decisions, drinking the Kool-Aid may be the only choice in the short term.

A Brief History of Jonestown

The phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” is a reference to the mass suicide in Jonestown (Peoples Temple Agricultural Project) in Guyana on November 18, 1978. Over nine hundred people died, many of them intentionally drinking poison-laced Flavor Aid (not Kool-Aid, as the legend goes).

At the order of the leader of the Peoples Temple, Jim Jones, his followers committed suicide. They believed him, and believed in him, accepting that their actions had a larger meaning. They followed their leader into death, likely certain that they were saving themselves from a more terrible fate. A few survived by fleeing, but most chose death.

If Everyone Else Jumped off a Bridge…

Sure, there is a little bit of “laughing in the face of death” when we speak of drinking the Kool-Aid. At the same time, we might use the phrase in mockery of those who get the promotion we did not, because they seem willing to believe things that we believe are not true in order to fit in. Fantasies of rebellion and self-reliance aside, drinking the Kool-Aid is often necessary.

The old saw, “If everyone else were jumping off a bridge, would you?” ignores the fact that in many cases, with most people, the answer is “yes.” Humans are social animals, and we do not make every decision rationally, weighing the pros and cons of the matter.

We might create such lists to organize our thoughts, but our final answers are driven by more “squishy” aspects of ourselves such as our personal values, a desire for social acceptance, and even a certain mob mentality. The idea that we make choices rationally is a cultural fiction. We make some decisions that way, some of the time. But any time that the “coolness” of an idea takes part in our decision-making process, we have stepped away from pure, objective rationality and into something much more influenced by culture, ideas of success and acceptance, and in fact a whole social realm that is not objective, but is very, very real.

So, Why a Kool-Aid Free Diet?

In the course of life, we will need to do things we do not like and accept things that we do not truly believe in, at least on the surface (and often much more deeply). So why discuss it at all? It is one thing to ape social customs, another to believe them unquestioningly, and yet a third to understand their context, and sometimes meaning(s).

If you have ever traveled in a foreign country and spent time with the people who live there, you likely picked up at least a smattering of local customs and words. You might have been able to say hello, order basic foods, and just generally “get along.” The pure aping of social rules, with little or no understanding, is a far cry from being an expert in a culture. At the same time, it is also how we learn the social rules in our first culture.

Our own culture is learned in a process that anthropologists call “enculturation.” If acculturation is the learning of a second culture (like during a year abroad in France), then enculturation is the way we learn our first culture. We learn our first culture in a way that we never really learning anything again, by doing it until it makes sense, and not generally by learning sets of abstract rules. In a sense, that first culture, like the first language, becomes the baseline for all learning throughout our lives.

That does not mean that we will forever accept that culture as “true,” but it becomes our semantic home, our point of departure. The Kool-Aid Free Diet is about understanding that mental home, by taking a glimpse into our own culture, for a brief moment, as if from the outside.

We Are All Primates

Growing up in a golden age of post-Western Culture, it has seemed both odd and fitting to me that our current everyday ways of thinking about human behavior depend so much on earlier models. The models I’m talking about are not the ones that necessarily come from the hallowed halls of academia (though some do), but the ones that everyday people use, the ones that children learn at their parents’ knees.

In other words, I am not planning on looking at the world of cutting edge science; we do not, by and large, live in that one. Instead I am speaking of the cultural truths that shape our lives and our decision-making. When we want to get at understanding people, we need to look at both the rational person and that underlying biological stratum.

ChimpFor all that we believe in, or at least depend on, “science” and its answers, as I look around, I see that we are terribly dependent on pre-scientific ideas of the person in our everyday lives. Our ideas of people as “rational actors” or “inherently good” or “genetically predisposed” to various behaviors, are all things we have inherited from some part of Western Culture. Yet at the same time, we are not rational about these ideas at all.

It’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing. But it is a conceit to think of ourselves as somehow beyond all that.

Living in Tension

Our spoken models of human behavior, the ones that we subscribe to in our everyday speech, and the ones we enshrine in our laws, policies, and business decisions, speak of people as rational products of 16th century enlightenment, 18th century political liberalism, and 19th century notions of progress. We tie these all together with 20th century ideas of modernization and globalization to become “modern” people.

Western culture is not simply a product of these new ideas, but something that ties back thousands of years to Medieval Europe, the Roman Empire, Classical Greece, Ancient Egypt, and the first cities in Babylonia.

But there is another side to being human. We are not just these cultural constructions, however ancient, but also messy biological animals. Our “selves” are not one or the other, but exist in a tension between these two positions—the rational thinker driven by choice and the often territorial, instinct-driven primate.

Rationality Is a Duck

Mallard

One of the traditions that we have inherited from the Enlightenment is a rejection of the “animal” side of ourselves. We speak as if, by rejecting that half of ourselves, we can become somehow more “pure.”  This is not as successful as we would like it to be. Instead, by forcing these parts of ourselves into hiding, we create a more complicated landscape where truths we have closed our eyes to shape our movements and inform our decisions.

As any advertiser knows, putting an attractive woman in the picture with a car makes it more appealing to a certain demographic. This is not rational, but it works.

When we try to analyze human behavior under the assumption that it is rational, and that we make choices for reasons, we trip ourselves up. Sure, I have reasons, and you have reasons, but in the end, when we look at aggregate patterns of human behavior they indicate that there are some things going on that have more to do with non-rational decision-making.

Introduction

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Primates goes beyond commonly accepted beliefs about the nature of people, looking past things that we all accept as true and seeing deeper into our own human nature. This writing is informed by the social sciences, from anthropology and history to psychology and sociology.