Knowledge and the Scientific Method

Essay by Mike Shesterkin, Exec. Director

In our last article, we took a broad, philosophical swipe at the notion of science, the acquisition of knowledge and how it is these things are, for the most part, shaped by a 17th century view of the cosmos. In this article, we’ll look again at knowledge and what the scientific method has to do with it.

Knowledge and Us

We cannot over-emphasize the importance Dr. Deming placed on knowledge and how we acquire it through learning. Much has been written about what knowledge is and how we go about acquiring it. In fact, whole branches of philosophy have grown around this topic. For us, and in this particular moment – as our society teeters on the verge of chaos – we would do well to appreciate the importance of the processes we use to acquire knowledge of the world around us. As complex as these things may be, the way in which we go about acquiring knowledge is something for which each of us must take responsibility.

What strikes me, at this moment, is that there is a profound communitarian nature to knowledge. In other words, knowledge of the world around us, to be effective (i.e., the extent to which it brings about the common good) must be – in some way – shared by others. While I cannot articulate a complete picture of this idea, it is, nonetheless, a foundational thing. What is most important is where we start the process of acquiring knowledge, and I think it starts with this simple question: Is the cosmos, the whole ordering of things, fundamentally “good” and creative, or “evil” and destructive? If we see things from the former perspective, there will always be hope for a better future; if we see things from the later, there’s a reasonable likelihood we’ll be prone to unfounded conspiracy theories, and inclined toward riotous, violent behavior.

The Scientific Method

As a tool, or process, the scientific method is a good place to start when it comes to how we go about acquiring knowledge through learning. In other words, the scientific method provides us with a way to learn about the world around us. So, what is the scientific method?

This is another complex question, but for our purposes, we’ll go back to what we probably learned in our late stages of grammar school. In this context, the scientific method is defined by seven discrete stages as listed below.

  1. Make Some Observation
  2. Form a Hypothesis
  3. Make a Prediction
  4. Perform and Experiment
  5. Analyze the Result
  6. Draw a Conclusion
  7. Report the Results

We’ll examine a couple of the stages here for the purpose of creating a shared understanding of things. The first is what we mean by a hypothesis. This is simply a statement based on some set of observations; it is borne of inductive reasoning (i.e., from the observations to some rule or summary statement). By way of example, one could observe that on cloudy days, rain falls from the sky. A hypothesis statement, based on this observation, could be: On all cloudy days, it rains.

The next is stage is making a prediction. Using the same example, our prediction could be: On the next five cloudy days, it will rain. The next steps ought to be relatively self-explanatory and we’ll not get into them here. For a more complete explanation of all the stages, please see this page, which is on the Colby College website.

Our next step is to overlay the scientific method onto what Dr. Deming refers to as his, “Plan, Do, Study, Act Cycle”. There’s a good reason for this and it’s tied to the notion of how we go about acquiring knowledge, and in particular, how we do so within the business. I believe it’s foundational to see the linkage between the scientific method – this thing that has had such a profound effect on accelerating human knowledge of the world around us – and how it is made manifest in the world of business. We’ll take-up this topic in the next article.

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