Tag Archives: scientific method

Thinking without end

After the interview with Dawkins on BBC Radio 4 covered in the last post, the argument about evidence and political decision-making took further bizarre turns. The next day John Humphreys interviewed the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who was asked to comment on Dawkins’ views. Latterly, two researchers were asked to comment further on the discussion. One worked at a religious research institute and the other for an organisation promoting the dissemination of science. As listeners to the BBC we were  led inexorably to think that the only alternative to a scientific perspective on Brexit and evidence, and this a reductive view of science, was to take a faith position. We believe in God or we believe in science. Both are metaphysical positions in the sense that you have to declare your faith in one or the other before engaging with a way forward. Continue reading


Pragmatic inquiry and Brexit

I listened to the eminent evolutionary biologist and New Atheist Richard Dawkins promoting his new book, Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist, on the radio. He discussed the role of scientific method and evidence, particularly in relation to the Brexit vote. He began by saying that nothing so important as staying in, or leaving the EU should hinge on a binary yes/no vote. But he then went on to extol the virtues of scientific method, which in his radio interview, and in the introduction to the book, he argues should be the preeminent method for making decisions about the world, including Brexit. We should seek out the evidence, public and private, and make our decision according to that. For Dawkins, scientific method is predicated on removing prejudice and gut feeling, indeed all feelings, from rational decision-making and is as relevant to making political decision making as it is to discovering more about the natural world. The best example of a method which does this is the double blind randomised control trial, the gold standard of medical research. He declared that he didn’t want his politicians to be emotional, but rather he wanted them to make the best possible decision, rationally, and on the basis of the best possible evidence. Continue reading

Doubt as a form of enquiry

In the last post I discussed what the pragmatic philosopher John Dewey referred to as the quest for certainty. I have been arguing that the discomfort that people feel if something isn’t completely nailed down in advance often prevents them from dwelling long enough with experience to work experimentally. There is rush to define, to plan out in advance, to idealise and to make certain and this is likely to prevent innovative ways of working to which organisations aspire. I have been making an alternative argument that without improvisation, spontaneity and risk there can be no innovation.

Dewey was interested in experimentation and argued that traditions of thought, such as mainstream philosophy, have conventionally been suspicious of the bodily, the temporal and the experiential, instead preferring Plato’s fixed and pure forms. We are generally encouraged to discover pre-existing ‘truth’, rather than dwell in the messy reality of experience. However, he himself was much less interested in knowledge as a pure and static expression of truth, and more committed to knowing as a form of active enquiry, the idea of constantly opening up experience to further experience. I think this idea of constant doubt and enquiry is especially relevant to managers who are thinking about how to deal with the ever changing patterning of experience in organisations that they have to deal with on a daily basis. Continue reading

Science envy

Many management theorists yearn to be scientific and as a consequence the domain is littered with tools which claim to have scientific validity and which go on to claim the ability to measure, predict and control many aspects of human and organisational life. So, for example, you might choose to use Cameron and Quinn’s Competing Values Framework which is supposed to allow you to diagnose and change your organisation’s culture and values. By using the tools managers can help employees line up and point in the same direction by adopting the values you require in your organisation.Then of course there is the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) which is supposed to indicate which of the Jungian personality archetypes best describes your character.

Alternatively you might use an Implicit Association Test (IAT) to diagnose unconscious bias in your employees.The IAT is usually administered as a computer-based test where respondents are asked to make associations between words. The idea seems to be that when faced with a choice between two word pairings, black/white, pleasant/unpleasant, hesitation in associating say, black with pleasant is taken to indicate unconscious bias against black people. This is also related to the speed with which one associates white with pleasant. It is a test based on manual dexterity, measuring speed of response in typing. Despite the enormous amount of energy and resources put into replicating and validating these tests, they are deeply problematic. Continue reading

On models and scaling up

I was recently sent a proposal by the designers of a project who intended to demonstrate a particular approach to undertaking development work in a geographical district in a developing country, and if it was successful they then intended to ‘scale up’ the model to other districts . This was, they said, in order to overcome the piecemeal approach of just working at village level, which led to uneven development. The models embraced both the technical and the social – technical in terms of engineering solutions, but social in the way that they intended to work with different groups to encourage them to commit to the engineering solutions. The idea of modelling assumed that the same outcomes were possible with standardised approaches to both objects and people.

One of the difficulties that this presents is of assessing the effectiveness of the models in their own right as distinct from the organisation’s staff taking up these models with other, local people. The premise seems to be that if the models ‘work’ then anybody can take them up elsewhere with the same effect. This, of course, is the basis of scientific thinking as it implies to the natural world. A method is generalisable if anyone can apply it with the same results. However, if  effectiveness is in good part due to both the quality of  thinking about method (models) but also the calibre of the people who are working and the quality of the relationships  they are forming  with others to help them work, then there is no separating out the contextual from the generalisable. Success will arise from a whole host of local and national factors, while the idea of ‘scaling up’ implies that it is the generalisable factors which are the most important.  What is emphasised, then, is abstracting from the context and the privileging of the general over the particular. Continue reading