November 14, 2011


The limits of the scientific method and the need to merge science and innovation

After a visit to CIGI to discuss the value of think tanks I blogged about Roger Martin’s presentation and idea of the ‘logical leap of the mind’. He has published an article on the issue of the limits of the scientific method in economics and the world that is a must-read for anyone advocating for ‘evidence based policy’ or the adoption of impact evaluations and randomised control trials as the gold standards of decision making.

Martin beings by describing the confident exposition of an economist’s explanations of the current economic crisis. The same economist who had mistakenly predicted the crisis a few months prior. He argues that at the core of the problem with many of the current initiatives to make policymaking a technocratic affair is the inappropriate application of the Aristotelean scientific method:

The roots of the problem can be traced right back to Aristotle, the father of modern science, who around 400 B.C. laid down the first formal conception of cause and effect.

But … as much as Aristotle was a proponent of his scientific logic, in the best scientific tradition, he established boundary conditions for his theory.  It was for the part of the world in which things could not be other than they are. An oak tree is an oak tree and cannot be something else.  For this world, Aristotle laid out the seminal scientific method and argued that it was the optimal way for understanding that part of the world.

… he also cautioned that there is another part of the world that can be other than it is, and there was another method that needed to be used to understand it. The scientific method would be wholly inappropriate.

That part of the world consists of people – of relationships, of interactions, of exchanges.  In this part of the world, relationships can be good, bad or indifferent; close, distant or sporadic.  They change – they can be other than they currently are. For this part of the world, Aristotle said that the method used to develop our understanding and to shape this world is rhetoricdialogue between parties that builds understanding that actually shapes and alters this part of the world.

At the CIGI meeting Roger Martin argued that to make a difference, think tanks must make sure that they understand this and pay sufficient attention to creating new ideas (these logical leaps of the mind) -and warned against the current practice of applying science to the vast track of the world where things can be other than they are:

Science advances our knowledge of the world in which things cannot be other than they are.  But the modern practice of applying science to the vast tract of the world where things can be other than they are is unhelpful, as demonstrated by the unreflective economist. Extrapolating the future to be a straight-line projection of the past is neither accurate, nor is it helpful in creating better understanding and newer ideas.

As much as it is helpful to the world to create, test and prove out novel new hypotheses about things that cannot be other than they are, I would argue it is more critical to the world to create novel new hypotheses for things that can be other than they are – like economic growth, environmental sustainability, and peace and security.

To do so, we have to break the iron grip of science on the part of our world that for which mere extrapolation of the past is ineffectual, for which the creation of a better future must be the goal.

The idea of the logical leap comes from Charles Sanders Peirce who:

… concluded that no new idea was ever derived from the analysis of the past using inductive and deductive logic – the two forms of logic our modern scientific method utilize.

However, deductive and inductive logical analyses aren’t so hot for things that can be other than they are – like economy for example.  These things change constantly due to the interactions of the people and organizations. The fall of 2008 wasn’t an extrapolation of the past – it was discontinuous with the past.

The obvious implication of this is that if think tanks are being Peircian they would be asking more fundamental questions about the persisting and new problems faced by the world. They would not be looking at hard data about what has happened to lead them forward, but rather be looking for alternative explanations.

In Chile, the think tanks that appeared after the Pinochet coup in 1973 began their work by looking at the causes of the breakdown of democracy in a attempt to understand what had happened. Their theories and what they knew of Chilean politics and society could not explain it. Had they now focused on this they would have not been able to adapt and find solutions to what was, for Chile, an unimaginable situation.

Rather than forgetting entirely that their theories were demonstrated to be totally lacking, and then going on to analyze some more and predict more based on those theories, they would have created a new hypothesis to explain what just happened.  This would be what Peirce evocatively called ‘a logical leap of the mind’ and ‘an inference to the best explanation.’

That is the merger of science and innovation.  It is what Peirce called ‘abductive logic’.  It is the formation of a new hypothesis.

And what do you do with an idea in the absence of data to prove it? You discuss it: you dialogue.

Martin does not argue that there is no place for deductive or inductive logic in the work of policymaking and think tanks:

Rather, I am arguing that we need to reign in faux science, which is appropriate only for understanding things that cannot be other than they are, using the tools of deductive and inductive logic.  And we need to release the energy of a broader conception of science and innovation that helps us to shape those aspects of our world that can be other than they are, using abductive logic.  It won’t always be clear in advance which is which, but it is important that we not default reflexively to analysis rather than innovation.

About the author:

Enrique Mendizabal:  Founder, On Think Tanks

Read more from: Enrique Mendizabal