My friend the scientist tells me that I’m really a scientist at heart. I’m a tad dubious about such a broad statement (a former employer thought I was an engineer at heart); however, it is likely that I have learned scientific and engineering thinking through osmosis. Today I’ll be talking about science as a way of thinking about life, work, and even your business.
The scientific method: a refresher
I had to go back and look up some textbook definitions, but the effort was instructive. At the heart of science and the scientific method is the scientific hypothesis, which is basically a testable theory about how the world works. Here’s Encyclopedia Britannica’s take on the matter:
The two primary features of a scientific hypothesis are falsifiability and testability, which are reflected in an “If…then” statement summarizing the idea and in the ability to be supported or refuted through observation and experimentation.
Falsifiability means that there exists some way of demonstrating that the theory can be proven right or wrong in the real world. Testability means you can set up some sort of experiment to determine if, in fact, your theory about physical reality is correct. Another important aspect of experiments is that anyone should be able to repeat them, given a precise enough description of the experiment being attempted and the equipment and methods used.
Here’s a visual representation of the process:
Applying the scientific method to life, the universe, and everything
Usually the scientific method and hypotheses are used to test some theory about how the natural world works. However, the approach also has some applicability to how we deal with our lives, our writing, and our business practices. The differences being that experiments with our personal lives are not 100% repeatable by others due to differences in background, genetic inheritance, and social circumstances. But bear with me here (I’m looking at you scientists in my audience): I’m convinced that there’s something to this.
We gather information about people and the world around us almost from birth. We’re using our senses, imperfect as they are, to ascertain the appearance, behavior, or qualities of people and objects around us. As children, we often ask, “What if I do X?” That’s an incomplete hypothesis, as children don’t know that they will be burned if they touch the pot of boiling water or that the radio will stop working if they take it apart and start removing parts. Children are just curious, and sometimes the result is what I politely call mayhem. Unfortunately, there are adults and even entire civilizations that act on incomplete hypotheses without a thought to outcomes (“Let’s burn fossil fuels for energy because they’re more efficient than burning wood”).
As adolescents and adults, though, we can train ourselves to anticipate the consequences of our actions. “If I say X to the teacher, I should get a positive response” or “If do X, my friends will laugh” or “I do X for someone, they will like me.” In these various ways, we can try different actions based on our experiences that can move our lives forward.
First drafts can be a bit like science in that we sometimes write things without previous experience. Maybe we’ll get the result we want, but more likely we’ll have to adjust and refine our work and try (experiment) again before we get the result we expect, which is a document that meets a particular need. Me, I love writing first drafts because that’s where the adventure and the unknown is. Send me back again and again to rewrite the same document, and I’m likely to get bored or to miss things…which goes a long way toward explaining why I never became a professional scientist.
The ADDIE Model (Analyze, Develop, Design, Implement, Evaluate) is a variation of the scientific method in a training and development context. You have a set of circumstances in a workplace you want changed; you create training to address those circumstances; then you put people through the training and evaluate if their behavior changes. If yes, you could say the training was successful; if not, you might need to change a few things and do it over.
Solo entrepreneurs and big businesses are constantly testing hypotheses in their operations, too. To bring in money, they try experiments with their product lines (“What if we improve performance X% and change the design in Y directions? What will people pay for that?”). They don’t know the outcome, but they expect some sort of result, ideally positive. I’ve done this with my freelance career for the last five years: I kept tweaking my resume and marketing approach until I started reaching the types of businesses and work that I wanted. I also experimented with different types of work to see what could pay the bills, how much the work would interest/challenge me, and whether particular types of customers were a good fit for how I operate.
In the life, work, or business examples, if we are honest about our inquiries into reality, we will then take the data that result from our efforts–So-and-so didn’t laugh or like me, the customer didn’t like my approach to that piece of writing, that particular promotion didn’t bring in as much money as we’d hoped–and then incorporate our lessons learned. Future behavior, then, would teach us to refine our approach or learn not to do X again.
The same friend who suggested that I’m a scientist at heart would also give me a nudge at this point and indicate that there are some fundamental differences between applying hypotheses to daily life and doing them in a scientific laboratory, and I would tend to agree. Life both is and is not a laboratory. Social or personal circumstances change almost constantly. It’s almost impossible to recreate circumstances again in the future because people will have moved on from where they were.
Also, it’s impossible to “control” for life circumstances (in science experiments, you include a sample where nothing is done to it to verify that your actions are producing a given result). Lacking the ability to see how life would go if you did nothing, you have only two choices: make the decision and take the risk or do nothing.
Another example of how the scientific method works without us being aware of it comes when we ignore results or misinterpret them. You could be an argumentative individual who’s facing a lot of problems at work and at home and you’re not certain why. You might keep thinking that everyone else is just wrong and try to argue better or louder when confronted with disagreement. Then again, maybe you’ll take the time to evaluate what is happening (look at the data) and determine that perhaps your own tendency to quarrel with others might be contributing to your professional or personal difficulties. So you run an experiment: what will happen if next time someone says something I don’t like, instead of arguing with them, I listen to what they say and act differently? How might the relationship go better? You can’t undo the experiment once it’s done, but you will have learned, scientifically, how people work.
So what’s the point of all this?
Merely that the scientific method, is a powerful and useful method for understanding the world and, while it’s not in a pure form in daily life, you can at least learn to anticipate the consequences of your actions; observe real-world results; and learn how to behave differently in the future.
Hanging around with scientists and engineers can be fun–it can also be educational in ways you never quite anticipated. Food for thought as you go out and write for these fine folks. Have a splendid Thursday!