Why The Scientific Method Is Of No Help When It Comes To Understanding People


Thursday, 9.25pm

Sheffield, U.K.

CEOs can talk and blab each day about culture, but the employees all know who the jerks are. They could name the jerks for you. – Jack Welch

I thought I would take a quick look at Robert Pirsig’s book Lila: An inquiry into morals to refresh myself on what he wrote about organising information.

But I found myself following a trail of words that were really about something different – something that describes what I’m slowly understanding now – something that I just didn’t see when I last read it.

Perhaps it’s just that I’m seeing more of this thing around me now – and so I’m more aware of just how important it is to us.

What is this thing?


Now, I’m not going to try and define culture – but many people have.

And when they do, it starts to become complicated – you get long sentences filled with jargon as people try and pin down exactly what they think “culture” means.

In a nutshell Pirsig argues that people trained in the scientific method – logical positivists – say that you should only look at facts.

Facts are things you can see, observe, document.

So you can write down things about the culture you’re observing.

For example, in an office, you can document how people do their work, how different people approach tasks, how they spend their day.

An anthropologist would do this but what they wouldn’t do is generalise – say that the behaviour they’re seeing is because of certain values.

And that’s because “value” is another hard thing to define – and if you start saying anything about values – well you’re in the territory of various “isms” and you’re going to get in trouble.

For example, if you say your staff are lazy, or you talk about characteristics that are related to ethnicity or gender – you’re going to get hauled in front of HR or a tribunal pretty quickly.

From a scientific point of view, however, value is not something you can measure – you can’t objectively study it and so, for all practical purposes, it does not exist.

So, on the one hand, people who study culture for a living are too scared to say anything about it and people who live that culture don’t know enough to really talk about it sensibly.

Yet it exists.

Let’s ground this in the topical example of the Covid virus’ impact on the global economy.

You have read the stories – you’re cheered by the resilience of people, warmed by the generosity of many, buoyed by the support given to staff and suppliers by some organisations.

You’re annoyed by the stockpiling and selfishness of some, incensed by the laying off of workers by rich firms and shocked at the way some people have been forgotten.

What you’re seeing is the manifestation of cultures.

The problem happens when you try and name what’s going on.

Pirsig argues that you have subjects and objects – the things that are doing things and the things that are being done.

I’m probably off on the grammar, but if you put your hand on a hot stove, and you swear – one is a subject and the other is an object.

A voter marking the ballot paper is making their view felt on the politicians out there.

The difficulty arises, according to Pirsig, when we try and ascribe values to the subject or object.

When you try and say something like that person is a conservative or that viewpoint is conservative – both of which are value judgements.

This is easy to do – and it’s hard to see why it’s not the thing you should do.

Value actually lives between the subject and object – it’s the thing that you sense directly, the thing that you experience.

For example, when a manager shouts at you – what you experience is value – low value to be sure – but that’s the value.

The value doesn’t exist in the person shouting or in the feelings you have later – but it’s the thing you sense that comes from one and results in your feelings later.

And knowing this distinction matters because you have to experience what is going on before you can get a sense of the values at work, and therefore the culture at work.

Going back to our Covid example.

There are undoubtedly companies out there who talk about their values – set out a list of things that they believe in.

And they also, at this time of trouble, treat their employees like disposable commodities.

That experience – which you see documented all over social media – those are their real values.

Now, the other thing about these values is that they are as real as anything else out there – you’ll experience them all the time.

At this point you’re probably thinking – so what – what is the point of all this?

The point is this.

When you’re trying to sell to someone, to help them change, to make a difference – you won’t get anywhere if you try and put them in a basket conveniently labelled in some way that makes sense to you.

Using segmentation and personas and all that stuff is a way of trying to bottle culture and value.

You may be lucky and there may be an overlap between what you describe and the person you talk to.

But really, you’re better off trying to really understand them – by listening and watching and experiencing their values directly.

When you do that you’ll quickly realise which ones you want to work with and can help and which ones you should walk away from very quickly.

The better you get at sensing value – the better you will get at understanding the culture you’re working with.

And the better you will get at doing better business.

And there’s nothing scientific about this – it’s just getting better at being human.


Karthik Suresh

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