I winced when the debater raised his voice and angrily responded, “Scientists believe it, and that’s good enough for me.” Even a casual student of history knows scientists have often been wrong, and new theories emerge as we get new information.
Every leader should understand the nature of scientific inquiry, because it underlies many beliefs being transferred to others (through education or indoctrination), and significant political and economic decisions.
The process of science is to ask questions and seek answers in a particular, constrained way:
- Form a hypothesis about the way something works.
- Create a falsifiable, testable statement.
- Run an experiment to collect data
- Interpret to see if the statement is true or false, taking great care to avoid biases (confirmation bias, sampling bias, lack of correct controls, and so on)
Number 2 is particularly important, and the point at which both sincere and manipulative people go awry. Hot button example: Atmospheric warming over time is falsifiable, “climate change” is not. No matter which direction your climate data shifts, it’s still true that it changed. Better to test falsifiable statements about acidity of ocean water in a specific area, total mass of ice vs. distribution of sea ice, etc.
Number 4 is also crucial. If a scientist resists reasonable questions about how data was gathered or interpreted, I recommend you discount their conclusions. Saying “You’re not a scientist and you couldn’t understand” is unhelpful as an intelligent defense. Anyone could incorrectly interpret data, and everyone is vulnerable to biases. Specific concern area: If a scientist only has a mathematical model, remember that there is always an indeterminate gap between the map and the territory. Remember the dictum that all models are wrong, and some are still useful.
These principles are true for any investigative field of science:
Finally, leaders must understand the limits of the scientific method. The method cannot address deep questions about love, justice, peace, liberty, and purpose. We address these through philosophy, the study of history, and religion – which also have their limits.
Leaders like you are the business of making decisions based on data and opportunities, amid messy people with complicated histories and uncertain situations. Understand the strengths and the limits of the scientific approach.