Wednesday, September 16, 2015


When I go through the scientific method in my Introduction to International Relations Theory class I discuss the various steps that a good scientist needs to go through when trying to understand events or widely held beliefs over time. I always start by explaining that widely held beliefs aren't always true and that "facts don't speak for themselves."

So, for example, simply because many people believed that the world was flat didn't make it any more so than the widely held belief that the earth was the center of the universe.

If we get the steps right we not only understand the world around us better, but we can begin making predictions. This is the essence of the scientific method.

I spend almost two weeks going through the scientific method in my IR class, specifically discussing how we use it to understand, make predictions, and build theories about conflict and war. When it comes to any series of events (or developments) in the international community the goal is to understand not only "what" happened but "how" conflict happens in our world. 

The larger issue of "why" something happens is better left to students of philosophy and religionWhether or not God "willed it" is not the domain of the scientist (though it is still a useful discussion).

While we are pursuing the scientific method we have to understand that we will never get the same type of certainty in the social sciences that we get in the hard sciences. The law of gravity, for example, is different from the "laws" that explain human error and the causes of war. 

The key to understanding this is knowing that the steps and rigour that flow from the scientific method are essentially the same across disciplines, across academic schools, across professions and, yes, across time.

Finding the causes behind war requires the same kind of discipline and patience for the political scientist as does finding causality in a criminal investigation for a detective.

Perhaps more importantly, finding causality means walking through intellectual traps and the mine fields put in place by those who would rather believe what they know rather than what is known, or being discovered.

Helping us to understand the importance of the scientific method is this clip from Credit Suisse's Michael Mauboussin. His three steps - Observation, Forecasting, and Sorting Relevance - for making decisions on financial matters are short and to the point ...

Current and former students of mine will (hopefully) see that Mauboussin's three "scientific" steps mirror what we discuss during the first two weeks in my International Relations class: 1) Investigation, Observation, and Analysis (Mauboussin's Observation), 2) Hypothesis & Predictions (Mauboussin's Forecasts), and 3) Theory Building (Mauboussin's Sorting Relevance of new information against what you know).

If you get all of this right you can begin to distinguish yourself from those with simple, ill-informed, opinions.

How do you get to this point? I'm glad you asked.

As a thought exercise imagine what would happen 500 years ago if an individual hit the floor in a sudden frenzy of uncontrolled spasms. Depending on where you were in the world, an accepted response might be, “They’re possessed by an evil spirit, or the devil.” 

Accusations would be made. A good ol' witch burning might follow.

Because somebody began to question the assumptions and beliefs of the time we eventually developed the capacity to understand the science behind seizures, epilepsy, and much more about how the body works. How did we get to this point? Because someone decided to doubt what we were told, and challenged what we knew. And they did it in a disciplined fashion that allowed others to see that something else besides the devil was behind a seizure. 

This process is the essence of the scientific method. 

Unlike accepting what we are told, or believing what we want because it comforts us - as was the case during the medieval period - the scientific method forces us to pursue new answers to questions we have about the world around us.

This is what happened when Galileo looked through a telescope and found that the earth moved. 

As I point out in my classes, Galileo had a tremendous impact on history because he was curious and decided to observe and analyze the world rather than accept what he was told. What he found, in many ways, helped transform how we saw our world, and ourselves.

By diligently looking through a telescope, and playing with some figures, Galileo was the first to scientifically suggest that the earth moved (heliocentrism). The discovery was so revolutionary it brought the authority of the Catholic Church down on Galileo. The high priests of the Catholic Church disagreed with what Galileo found. 

According to Church teachings at the time, the earth was flat and the center of the universe. The danger in Galileo’s discovery for the Church was that if the Church could be wrong about something as important as the position of the earth perhaps they could be wrong about other things, like the Divine Right to Rule and other aspects of life. 

This helps explain why Galileo’s findings went far beyond disrupting Church doctrine at the time. His findings so unnerved his university colleagues' world view at Padua that many refused the opportunity to look through Galileo’s telescope for fear of what they might find. 

In the end, Galileo was forced to recant (though he reportedly murmured under his breath "the earth still moves"). 

The people who disagreed with Galileo were eventually proven wrong. That the earth moves is no longer in doubt (though over 20% of Americans continue to believe the earth is the center of the universe). The earth isn't flat. And, no, you won't fall off if you sail far into the ocean blue. 

Unfortunately, we still have our scientific skeptics. These doubters are generally the same people who look only for information that fits their world view, or reject information that will disrupt what they want to believe about the world. 

These enemies of the scientific method make the world much more difficult than it needs to be. 

Ron Burgundy. Scientific Genius?

People who believe their interpretation of the world needs no revision will consistently engage in the following scientific missteps. They will ignore important counter factuals; they readily embrace confirmation bias (this one's especially funny/sad); they regularly promote false equivalenciesor; they demonstrate simple illiteracy and ignorance of basic information they claim mastery over (this one's sad/funny too). 

Ignoring good information and useful clues does no one a favor.

When anyone of these missteps occur, general ignorance, bad theories or bad science are invariably the result.

Rather than get into each one of the scientific faux pas' noted above it's probably easier to just watch the Monty Python clip below. It helps us understand how embracing confirmation bias and false equivalencies has stymied the scientific method and human advancement over the millennium

As the Monty Python clip makes clear, simply because you can make the connections, and it makes sense to you, doesn't mean it's true. This is the case no matter how much you want to ignore or believe something. 

I'll pick up on this in my next post, when I discuss how the scientific method can get a bad name with extra "slippery slopes" and a humorous discussion on how the Nobel committee has given prizes to experts who say the exact opposite thing.

- Mark

Addendum: For my PS 304 students, try not to get bogged down in the terms or the details. Just try to understand the larger story, which means knowing that simply because you have information doesn't mean you know what you're talking about. It might get you on Jeopardy, but memorizing mindless trivia isn't necessarily a gift.

Addendum II: Regular readers will see that what's presented here is pieced together, and slightly revised, from previous posts of mine on the topic.

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