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An Essay for Our Students on the Use of the Canons of the Scientific Method:
A Lens for Understanding Organizational Studies
Jon L. Pierce
Geoffrey G. Bell
Department of Management Studies

Labovitz School of Business and Economics

University of Minnesota Duluth

10 University Drive

Duluth, MN 55812

(218) 726-7929

(218) 726-7640

(218)726-7578 (fax)



May 22, 2006
We extend our appreciation to Anne Cummings and John Newstrom for their substantive comments on an earlier draft of this essay.

Students are bombarded daily with a myriad of assertions and claims made by many people, and in the process they acquire many beliefs and reject many insights. This essay is directed primarily to undergraduate students of organizational studies. We examine the different ways by which we come to ‘know that which we know,’ first by reviewing those methods with which most students are familiar – experience, expert opinion, faith, reason, and intuition. We then turn our attention to the scientific method and the language of science. We suggest that students can enhance their sophistication as consumers of information by applying the canons of the scientific method as a lens to inform their level of understanding. We highlight the nature of the scientific process and conclude with a set of insights that can be used to enhance students understanding of the manifest world.

An Essay for Our Students on the use of the Canons of the Scientific Method:

A Lens for Understanding Organizational Studies
Listen in on almost any conversation and it becomes readily apparent that people ‘know’ many things. It is also evident that we take many of our beliefs (opinions) for granted, and only rarely do we ask ourselves, “How do I know that to be true?” Moreover, we rarely ask that question of others. Be it from class, conversations with fellow students, stories appearing on the evening news, or statements appearing on the internet, we are inundated with information – medical studies warning patients taking cholesterol lowering medications to avoid eating grapefruit, assertions prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq that that country possessed weapons of mass destruction, studies associating daily dental flossing and red wine with longevity, and claims that a satisfied worker is a productive worker. Assertions of this nature should leave us questioning “How do we know this?” and “From where does that belief stem?”

These questions form the core of this essay. We review the different ways by which we come to that which we know, from the more familiar (e.g., personal experience) to the less familiar (i.e., science), and we suggest use of the canons of scientific method as a path/route through which our ways of knowing can be broadened and enhanced. In this essay, our primary audience is undergraduate students of organizational studies. As a natural part of their university experience, students daily come face-to-face with a variety of assertions. We hope that they will consider seriously the veracity of the claims they hear, and, in so doing, become more sophisticated consumers of information.

James (1890 (1918)p. 480), observed that we live in a world of “blooming, buzzing confusion,” and each of us works to make personal sense of that which surrounds us. In the process it is important that each of us come to understand the ways that we come to know, and the means by which we can improve upon the processes of adding to our storehouse of knowledge. Our focus on the use of the canons of the scientific method is intended to encourage and provide an additional tool to assist in this process.

While the publication of knowledge created through the scientific process must normally pass peer scrutiny before it is published, no similar structure exists to screen the vast majority of the information to which the students and the general public is exposed. As a consequence, it is important that we become more sophisticated information processors. All of us should be able to determine when someone is being intellectually honest; to be able to differentiate between assertions of fact (e.g., “I know ____”) from mere expressions of one’s personal belief (e.g., “I believe/I think ____”). One should respond with caution when someone talks about the future in terms of what ‘will happen’ as opposed to framing their assertion in terms of “I predict” or “I believe that ____ will happen.” The ability to discern such differences is critically important as we organize and store information in our warehouse of knowing for later use.

As they sift and winnow in search of truth and understanding, sophisticated consumers of information recognize the different types of relationships that connect phenomena to one another, they can comprehend both single and multiple causality, and they understand the limitations that stem from a sample size of one. They instinctively think in terms of variance, reliability, validity, and they recognize and can differentiate causality from mere correlation. While they employ multiple ways of knowing, they acknowledge the appropriate role and limitations of each.

In this essay, we discuss some of these issues. We begin by over viewing some of the more familiar ways by which we acquire our beliefs – personal experience, faith, and so forth. We then introduce our primary focus – science as a way of knowing. This is not to suggest that science is more important or “better” than the other ways of knowing – each has its place. However, undergraduate students are less likely to be familiar with science as a way of knowing, and it provides a rigorous way to test assertions to which students are exposed. Because of these factors, we provide a detailed examination of the scientific method from a user’s perspective.

The Genesis of Our Beliefs

We come to our beliefs and knowledge via many different means. In this section of our essay, and as a prelude to our primary focus on science as a way of knowing, we briefly review some of the many alternative ways that we develop the beliefs and opinions that we hold. The processes associated with acquiring knowledge are quite complex, and for the most part beyond the scope of this essay. Each is founded on a different set of understandings and provides somewhat different insights into the world. We conclude this section with some observations on subjectivity and distortions associated with the genesis of our beliefs. In the remainder of our essay we focus on and provide a users’ guide to the use of the canons of the scientific method as a way of knowing in the manifest (evident, apparent to the senses) world.

Direct personal experiences. We have multiple senses (sight, taste, hearing, touch, and smell) through which we directly and personally experience the world. In an attempt to come to know, understand, and predict the world that surrounds them, people take small samples from the array of stimuli to which they are exposed. It is from this small snapshot of their experienced world that people develop beliefs, routines, and ‘rules of thumb’ that enable them to navigate through life (Albert & Bell, 2002).

Because we have to navigate through life’s experiences, it is quite natural that people will rely upon their direct and personal experiences as a way of learning (Kolb, 1976). As many of our experiences are repeated we hopefully will travel from novice to expert, from a thin and superficial vail of understanding to one of intimate knowing, a journey more likely to occur if experience is consciously and explicitly reflected on for the lessons it may teach us. As a consequence, personal experience is a powerful teacher. Much of this power comes from the fact that experiences are direct, personal, often impacting multiple senses, and for which the consequent reinforcement is also direct and personal.

Because experiences are personal and direct, they play a powerful role in shaping our beliefs. Bandura (1982; 1989) has suggested that experience possibly plays the most influential role affecting the development of our beliefs. While a powerful teacher, beliefs that stem from direct and personal experiences often suffer from many biases and limitations. It is often said, for example, that people do a very good job of ‘learning their experiences,’ yet they often fail miserably at ‘learning from their experiences,’ partially because we are biased observers. In addition, people all too often treat their experiences as though they are truly reflective of the norm, rarely asking how similar or dissimilar they are from the experiences of others. According to Morgan (1998), ways of seeing are often ways of not seeing, and our experience base is much more limited than the vast array of possible experiences in the world (Levitt & March, 1988; March, Sproull, & Tamuz, 1991).

Vicarious experiences. Bandura’s (1982; 1989) work reveals that people often develop beliefs about their ability to organize and execute a course of action from the informational cues stemming from vicarious experiences. Vicarious experiences are indirect experiences, experiences that a person has that emanate from observations of the direct experiences of another. They represent the person’s imagined participation in another’s experiences.

Many of the beliefs that people hold stem from their observation of the stimulus, response, and consequent connections that are associated with the experiences of others. There has been more than one occasion when a bystander has observed someone ‘treading on thin ice’ only to fall through (literally or figuratively). Cognitively, people are capable of forming images of themselves in a similar situation. Concluding that the experience will not be a positive and pleasurable one, a belief gets formed suggesting that it is best to avoid walking in that person’s footsteps.

The use of vicarious experiences as a way of knowing can be both a powerfully positive and deceptive teacher. On the positive side many beliefs and opinions can be formed without incurring the costs that are associated with direct and personal experience (e.g., near drowning that accompanied falling through the thin ice). On the negative side, people all too often fail to fully observe an event and its context which can easily lead to the formation of erroneous cause and effect beliefs (March & Olsen, 1988).

As with perceptions of one’s direct and personal experiences, the informational cues transmitted from observations of other people’s experiences are filtered through the perceiver’s needs and values often resulting in a perception of that which one wants or needs to see. Moreover, the efficacy of direct and vicarious experience as a teacher is strongly related to the representativeness of that experience. There is variance (variability) in the world and a given experience may not be representative of the underlying population of similar experiences.

Social information processing (verbal persuasion). In addition to the direct observation of the experience of others, it is also possible for people to acquire their attitudes, beliefs, or opinions through the recountings (i.e., stories, statements of opinion) expressed by others. According to Salancik and Pfeffer (1978), many of the beliefs and opinions that we carry around with us are simply the constructions of others, arrived at through the information provided by others and ‘verbal persuasion’ (Bandura, 1982, 1989).

Other (socially) constructed beliefs generally stem from the views expressed by people whom we find attractive, people who are friends, others whom we believe have our best interest at heart, authority figures, and ‘experts’ (i.e., people who by their formal education and training or other means have developed deep insight into a particular phenomenon). For many of us, physicians, dentists, lawyers, clergy, professors, and automobile mechanics fall into this category. Many of the beliefs and opinions they pass along to us become internalized and part of our ‘knowing and understanding’ of the world. This can be a positive thing because becoming an expert often requires a large investment of time and energy. Hence, a student can acquire a vast understanding at a much smaller cost by listening to that which a true expert professesa. There can, however, be a negative side to this way of knowing when the learner relies on expertise without assessing the claims made. For example, in the lead-up to the Iraq war of 2003, many American citizens came to believe that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. This belief was largely the result of verbal persuasion and the socially provided information made in highly visible and publicly accepted bodies (e.g., the UN Security Council) by authority figures such as the President, Vice President and Secretary of State. This belief has largely been discredited by evidence now available, and which indeed may have been available at that time.

We frequently seek to confirm our beliefs by turning to our peers and friends. This may give rise to what Kahneman and Tversky (1982) refer to as a representative bias. Similarity attraction (birds of a feather flock together) often means that the sample of people we use to confirm our beliefs are people just like us and frequently they are unrepresentative of the population as a whole (Byrne, 1961, 1971).

Faith. There are times when people find themselves in that state where they exhibit confidence, complete trust, and an unquestioning belief in the notion that something is true. Such beliefs become articles of faith for those who hold them. Faith can be seen as a belief which is not based on proof; instead, it stems from trust or a strong and underlying desire that something is true. For example, children commonly have faith in their parents, a confidence and an unquestioning belief that mom and/or dad will protect and take care of them. Many citizens hold an unquestioning belief in the rightfulness of their nation’s acts, as illustrated by the observation that many American citizens are unquestioningly confident and comfortable in the belief that the United States could never have done anything that might have contributed to the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Such articles of faith simply represent beliefs that people accept and without question hold as true.

Drawing from a religious context, “faith is the evidence of things hoped for [emphasis added]…” (Hebrews 11:1). While direct personal experience represents the claim “I see it, so I believe it,” faith often claims, “I believe it, so I see it!” (Wallis, 2005).

Intuition. There are those times when we just seem to know – what is right or wrong, what is happening or what is going to happen – without conscious prior thought. There are those times when ‘some things just appear to be self-evident.’ When asked why or how we know, a typical response is ‘I just know’ or I can’t explain it.’ The word intuition is frequently employed within this context, as an explanation for the phenomenon at work.

Intuition refers to that psychological process whereby one comes to a state of awareness without any consciousness of having gone through the process of searching for information, processing it, weighing the evidence, critiquing, comparing it with alternatives, and arriving at a conclusion. Instead intuition reflects the sudden appearance of a belief in one’s consciousness, often referred to as instantaneous apprehension (Haidt, 2001).

Haidt (2001) contrasted intuition with reasoning and indicated that they are similar in that both are a form of cognition, yet two different kinds of cognition. According to Haidt (2001, p 818), intuition “occurs quickly, effortlessly, and automatically, such that the outcome, but not the process is accessible to consciousness, whereas reasoning occurs more slowly, requires some effort, and involves at least some steps that are accessible to consciousness.” As such, intuition may be thought of as a state of awareness arrived at by feeling, rather than through logical and conscious analyses.

Logical verification (reasoning). As a part of his presentation of social learning and social cognition theories, Bandura (1977; 1986; 1997) notes that individuals derive new knowledge from things that are already known. The application, for example, of integrative thinking represents a process through which people arrive at many of the beliefs (opinions) that they hold. Logical analyses, and inductive and deductive reasoning provide the individual with the tools through which they can weave observations, existing facts and beliefs together to arrive at a new state of understanding. For example, many individuals developed their opposition to the Vietnam War by weaving together messages from their childhood religious socialization that emphasized ‘peace and love,’ coupled with a firm belief in the commandment “Thou shall not kill” (which rarely appears with a footnote highlighting exceptions).

Science. Science is yet another way through which we come to know. The word science gets employed in at least three different ways, and possibly in different contexts. First, there is a dynamic view of science which envisions it as an ‘activity or process.’ As a process, science consists of an application of the scientific method (i.e., the application of theory to guide inquiry, the use of measurement or manipulation, and an assessment of relationships under controlled, objective, and systematic conditions)b. According to McMullin (1987), it is “the ensemble of activities of the scientist in pursuit of his [her] goal of scientific observation and understanding” (p. 3). Second, there is a static view of science. In this context, the word science refers to a ‘body of knowledge,’ a collection of propositions (McMullin, 1987: 3) that has been created through the application of the scientific method. The third view of science is heuristic. The heuristic view is focused on the purpose of science. According to the heuristic perspective, the purpose underlying science is the ‘creation of a body of knowledge’ to explain what is, to understand why, to comprehend how things got that way, and to predict what will happen in the future. The main goals of science are explanation and prediction – understanding what happens and why it happens (Salmon, 1987).

From a contextual perspective, it is important to note that science (e.g., the dynamic search to distinguish ‘what is’ from ‘what seems’ to be) in the natural sciences is seen as somewhat distinct from science in the social sciences. Flyvbjerg (2001, p. 5) observes that the “social sciences have not had the type of theoretical and methodological success that the natural sciences have,” while MacIntyre (1981) notes that unlike achievements in the natural sciences the social sciences are completely devoid of the discovery of law-like generalizations. Whether it is the natural or social sciences, the goal of science is to discover or reveal the unknown through objective, controlled, and systematic research. Science ultimately seeks to make available a body of knowledge arrived at through a means other than an expression of personal opinion while guided, to varying degrees, by the canons of the scientific method.

Subjectivity and Distortions to Ways of Knowing

There are limitations to and learned cognitive tendencies that impair each of the ways through which people come to the beliefs and opinions that they hold. The first six ways of knowing can be referred to as ‘non-science.’ While each of the non-science ways of knowing have a role to play as people come to know the world in which they live, each has its own unique strengths and limitations, and each is subject to contamination caused by ‘subjectivity.’ Additionally, all ways of knowing – both science and non-science, fundamentally rely on people acting with integrity, and not knowingly misleading themselves or others.c

It is generally agreed that the perceptual process involves four distinct stages: sensation, selection, organization, and translation. Each stage acts, in sequence, as both filter and organizer of the stimuli that impacts individuals from the world that surrounds them. Together the stimuli determine how an individual makes sense of his/her experiences. In addition, each stage is influenced by forces that potentially contaminates the degree to which perceived and objective reality converge (Anderson, Klatzky, & Murray, 1990; Berlyne, 1960). At the translation stage, for example, the perceptual process is potentially contaminated by numerous forces such as first impression bias, recency effects, primacy effects, attractiveness of the source effect, stereotyping, halo effects, projection, selective perception, expectancy effect, and the Pygmalion (self-fulfilling prophecy) effect. For example, and as previously noted, the ‘attractiveness of the source effect’ simply means that we are much more likely to accept as true a statement or an assertion made by someone who is attractive to us than the same statement coming from a complete stranger. Science, on the other hand, has as its aim the use of a method for the creation of a body of knowledge that strives to achieve control to thereby overcome the subjective interpretation of events. The scientific method relies on the cumulative development of a body of knowledge, such that one study builds on its predecessors as narrow theories slowly expand. While the goals of and means to science are laudable, it is important to note that not all science is ‘good science.’ We will examine the characteristics of good theory and science in more detail later.

It is generally recognized that the human species, like many others, is programmed to learn. As consumers of a variety of life’s experiences it is not at all uncommon for us to develop a familiarity with and confidence in one ‘teacher’ more than others. Such cognitive tendencies are learned and over a period of time they become a habit of the mind.

A habit of the mind suggests a recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behavior that reflects an inclination (tendency) of the mind’s operation. Some individuals, early in life, learn to become critical thinkers, or exaggerators, or habitual liars, or optimistic or pessimistic in nature. The ability to change one’s mind and to delay or suspend judgment, cynicism, indecision, fantasy, the use of emotion as opposed to reason in the decision making process are illustrations of habits of the mind. Some people learn to place trust in their intuition, others seek out expert opinion, while many others come to believe that personal experience is the ‘best’ teacher. Each of these reflect a habit of the mind, that state whereby an individual develops a cognitive tendency which ultimately informs their thinking, shaping their beliefs and opinions, forming that which they know.

Some of the assertions made by Jesse Ventura, former Governor of the State of Minnesota, illustrate habits of the mind based on something other than fact. In January of 2001, Governor Ventura chose the University of Minnesota Duluth as the site to comment on his new tax and spending proposals for higher education. During his visit the governor said to his largely student audience, “most of your professors get paid more than I do and I’m the governor” (Holwerk, 2001). According to the Duluth News-Tribune “the governor’s statement is demonstrably false” –his salary at the time was just over $120,000, while the average assistant professor earned $44,000, associate professors earned $53,000, and full professors were at $67,000. An editorial appearing in the Duluth paper claimed that his statements revealed the Governor’s “underlying animus toward higher education.” The editorial went on to say “What do you expect from a guy who made his career in the ‘fictional’ world of professional wrestling and ‘extreme’ football? … Ventura’s unshakable, fictional attitudes inform his policies regarding higher education.” (Holwerk, 2001). Fiction (make believe, non-truths, play-acting) was part of Ventura’s habit of the mind.

In the remainder of this essay we hope to provide an understanding of and a road map (i.e., a users’ guide) for the employment of science as a way of knowing. Within this context we encourage all students and consumers of information to ask themselves –Where, when, and how can science play a role in assisting me in my coming to know? The answer to this question is simple –with more frequency than is generally the case.

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