Testing… How can you be sure you aren’t doing the wrong thing?

I had a long walk today, accompanied by a number of podcasts. One of them was new to me (although it has been going for some years): The Infinite Monkey Cage. This episode was on the appropriation of quantum physics by various strands of pseudoscience. It was a really interesting discussion about the way scientific concepts are misinterpreted and what might motivate that.

At one point, one of the guests, Jeff Forshaw, made a really important point about the nature of scientific investigation that is often lost on non-scientists. Where does confidence in science come from, given that (by definition) research is providing answers to questions that have never been answered before. At 37′ 42″ in the podcast, he says:

My trust in other scientists comes from — and I often ask this when i am doing things like PhD exams — “so what did you do to demonstrate that this isn’t wrong? How much have you tried to break what you’ve done?” I trust the professional scientists who have spent a lot of time [doing this] (and I expect the answer to that to be “yeah, we tried everything: it just won’t be wrong”).

(I have slightly tidied up the transcript for clarity.)

This process of challenge is inherent to good science — it is built into the peer review that all research goes through before publication. Actively welcoming criticism is also part of scientific culture, as another guest, Ben Goldacre, pointed out at an earlier point in the discussion (34′ 55″ in the podcast):

You know, the Q&A after a work-in-progress seminar or a conference presentation is often a blood bath. But it’s all consensual. In general people don’t take it personally — its a consenting intellectual S&M activity — and we know that it’s good for our soul. We welcome it, and we want it because we know that’s how we will purify our ideas.

Lake District lintelThis made me think about decisions made in other contexts. In particular, how often do clients challenge the advice their lawyers give them in this way. I know that some will — and hard. Equally, I am sure that some are looking for reassurance that their preferred course of action is permissible and so are not inclined to push their lawyers to prove that what they are hearing is not wrong. Similarly, when firms make their own business decisions, can they always be sure that those decisions are pure and trustworthy?

One of the Cognitive Edge methods can be useful here. This is Ritual Dissent, which can be seen as a way of using Jeff Forshaw’s questions in the context of business decisions or choices — subjecting them to robust critique and testing so that the wider organisational community can comfortably trust them.

This technique, along with others derived from the same source, has the power to lead organisations to much better decision-making. Please get in touch if you are interested in knowing more about how your firm might benefit.

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