Can We Be Scientific In Our Approach To People?


Sunday, 6.52pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge – Carl Sagan

What does it mean to think scientifically?

One way of looking at this is to see a scientific approach as one that has a body of accepted knowledge and a collection of methods that are used by practitioners.

The difference between this and a non-scientific approach is something that only one or a few people believe in and where the methods are opaque or known to a few.

Or is it?

In 1962 Thomas S. Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, an essay that observed that arguments around method were much more common among scientists who studied people than scientists who studied stuff.

Stuff is simple, you look at it, break it down, pour stuff on it, spin it, roll it, burn it… and all the time you learn more about it.

But that doesn’t mean stuff is easy to study.

Take electricity, for example.

Did you know that the battery was invented because people thought that electricity was like a liquid that moved through other things and so if you could bottle it then you would be able to store and use it later – like hot sauce?

The first batteries were literally built using jars, designed to hold liquid.

Kuhn argued in his essay that it was very hard to tell what was “proper” science – if you looked at it carefully you would have to accept that the way people looked at the world a thousand years ago was just as scientific as the way people look at the world now.

People don’t change when it comes to how they think – brains are pretty much the same design.

What happens is that the body of knowledge they take for granted is taken for granted for only as long as people agree it’s true.

Now, that is actually quite a revolutionary statement.

It means that truth is temporary – it’s the case until something better comes along to replace it – something that changes things fundamentally.

Kuhn called this a new paradigm.

Now, this approach works very well in the “hard” sciences – but when it comes to people the arguments about methods and paradigms have a habit of carrying on.

If you have a scientific mindset then you come at things from a view that there is a “right” answer.

And this doesn’t work with people.

Let’s look at how people who work with people deal with things.

Take lawyers, for example.

If you ask a lawyer a question, there will be a sucking in of the breath, a low whistle, as they contemplate all the ways in which things can go wrong and how you will argue your position.

If you have ever been in a commercial negotiation you will have seen how this “people” problem plays out in practice.

There is a temptation to get all “scientific” about your approach – to do lots of modelling and maths about what’s possible.

That’s why any venture capitalist wants your assumptions and five-year projections – that’s an attempt to make you apply the methods of science to your thinking.

In practice, however, people only follow the mathematical reasoning when you’re not worried if you lose or if the issues aren’t that important.

The people who are in the room when they make the decision are usually the ones who understand people.

But, hold on a second, you say.

Surely everything online is now about analytics – about the way in which people respond to A/B tests and isn’t that completely scientific?

If you look at it you’ll probably find that it comes down to people skills again.

If you’re selling something online then you need to answer people’s questions and put pictures on that look good.

It’s not that hard to do that, so now if you want to win you have to cheat.

People buy on price, but if you’re the cheapest you’re probably shipping straight from the manufacturers, probably from overseas.

It’s quite hard to tell from most listings where something comes from – people are trying quite hard to stop you asking the question – hoping you will buy the cheap option.

If you’re not the cheapest then you have to pay to climb the listings – to be “boosted” by paying to be higher up.

These techniques work when the item is cheap – a few dollars.

But when it comes to large items, a car for example, people are much more careful, but they’ll still go with impulse purchases.

Is this kind of thinking scientific?

From one point of view it’s a bunch of hypotheses that can be tested – you can try different things and see how people respond.

But it’s biggest application is when you’re buying stuff – we’re back to stuff again.

If you’re studying stuff or selling stuff then a scientific approach is very helpful.

As you get away from stuff and move into people’s minds, it gets harder – people can’t be broken down and studied like stuff.

Not their minds anyway – not what makes them them.

But obviously we have to try, which is where the arguments about method come into play.

What kind of methods should we use if we want to understand other people?

Let’s look at what the field of people has to say about this in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

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