Think like a Scientist
When it comes to choosing tools, human beings are pretty clever. We don't eat steaks with spoons, or sip soups with knives (or at least I hope we don't). So when it comes to our mental tools, why do so many of us make these silly choices?
Why do we get caught in circular debates? Or get defensive around differing opinions? What makes us so certain that we know best? Or so certain that something we learnt years ago is still true? While there isn't a straight-forward answer, there are some practical steps to help us effectively choose our mental tools.
Four modes of thinking
According to Political Science Professor Phil Tetlock,
We often fall into three mindsets when we hear or present an idea.
Preacher: When we want to protect and promote our ideals
Prosecutor: When we want to prove the other party wrong
Politician: When we want to win over an audience
But organizational psychologist and Wharton’s top-rated Professor Adam Grant suggests that we might learn more by leaning into a fourth mindset.
Scientist: When we search for the truth
In scientist mode, we are "not concerned with where a new idea comes from—the sole test of its validity is experiment." (Richard Feynman, from 'Atoms in Motion', Feynman Lectures). In this mode, we run experiments, test hypotheses and discover knowledge. The ultimate goal is truth—tried and tested methods—driven by data and doubt.
Doubt can wear us down — but it can also help us to grow and create, and change our lives."
— Tea Uglow, Google Creative Lab
Doubt gets a bad rap. But it can be one of the greatest generators of creativity and innovation. While being uncertain can be seen as a weakness, in the world of science it's seen as a sign of intellectual humility. In scientist mode, we're prepared for the possibility that we could have something to learn. Our minds are more open, curious and agile. It's here that ideas flourish.
Context is key
It might seem obvious, but context is key. Depending on your personal or professional situation, these four mindsets are all have a place.
To give you an idea of the differences:
Are you pitching an idea? → Preach.
Are you pulling apart a competitor's product? → Prosecute.
Are you collaborating on a new venture? → Politick.
Are you creating a new product? Or cultivating a new habit? → Test, experiment, iterate
If you're thinking "but I do my research", "I know my field" or "I'm open to all ideas", you could be right! Maybe these modes of thinking might be more relevant to other areas of your professional or personal life. To gently test this theory, let's review some information the world has learnt more about. How much do you think you know about these topics?
How many senses do humans have?
How and why do chameleons change their skin colour?
How did humans survive the dinosaur era?
Who created the Frankenstein monster?
Which forbidden fruit did Adam and Eve eat?
Had a go? Here are some facts. Some scientists state there are 8 senses, while others argue there are up to 18. Chameleons don't change colour for camouflage (Insane!). Humans didn't exist at the same time as dinosaurs. Frankenstein was the scientist, not the monster. The Bible never mentions an apple, it only mentions 'fruit' and 'tree'. How did you go? Could it be time to think again?
Cultivating intellectual humility
While some of us might be trained as scientists, many of us might be trained to preach, prosecute or politick. Either way, there are some things we all can do to cultivate the intellectual humility that is central to scientific thinking.
Create a list of topics you know nothing about. My short list includes ecology, earthquakes, sound-engineering and why some dogs look eerily like their dog owners.
Engage with people who disagree. Surround yourself with people who challenge you, or consume what they write. If you're in person, ask them to walk you through their thoughts. Listen for the sake of listening, and don't interrupt. 'Tell me more' should be your default.
Admit your doubts. One of the fastest ways to learn is to ask someone else to explain it to you. They've already done the research! While it might seem obvious, remember that there are contexts where this is unwise. If you're pitching to investors, you'll need your best preachers.
Prove yourself wrong about one thing everyday. Before writing this article, I didn't know that according to scientists we have more than five senses. I never even thought to question it.
Reflect on what might help you open your mind. Reading a book? Listening to podcasts? Looking at the research? Pausing the conversation and coming back to it later? Hearing it from your intellectual friend at a party? Ask yourself: what honestly might help?
Tying it up
"Every time we encounter new information, we have a choice. We can attach our opinions to our identities and stand our ground... Or we can operate more like scientists, defining ourselves as people committed to the pursuit of truth—even if it means proving our own views wrong.” — Adam Grant, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know
Remember: the mind is a muscle. When we focus on what we think is right, or the flaws presented, we close ourselves off from the opportunity to rethink our ideas. Being closed off to being proved wrong or to having our beliefs challenged has huge costs. What if Aristotle had never questioned whether the Earth was flat? Would we be afraid to step out into the world and explore everything it offers?
When you next hear a new idea, ask yourself: Which mode of thinking am I in? And which mode of thinking is needed? You always have a choice.