The Ascent of Science
Bumble bees can’t fly; so goes one of the urban legends that continually seems to float around, popping up here and there when someone wants to make a point and never seemingly to die the death that it should. Recently one presidential candidate likened their campaign to that urban legend. He said, “Well, I compare my success to the Bumblebee. Scientists maintain that, based on its wing-size & the size of its body, it is aerodynamically impossible for the Bumblebee to fly. But the Bumblebee, being ignorant of the science, flies anyways …” Bumblebees of course can fly and science has no problem with their aerodynamics. While I would question the viability of a presidential candidate who can’t get the basic science right, for do I really want someone who can’t get the basics right making decisions on stem cell research, nuclear issues or global warming, I am more concerned with a bigger picture and that is the critical need for science to become ascendant in our societies. Our societies, organizations and the individuals within them need to make better more informed decisions based on real knowledge, not urban legends, pseudoscience or take-it-on-faith rationales. It is critical and rapidly becoming more important to our long-term well-being.
That quote from the presidential candidate illustrates an issue that is quite troubling and unfortunately fairly widely embraced. The notion that the Bumblebee flies anyway, in spite of the science is not only untrue, for while we as humans may be ignorant of the principles that allow the Bumblebee to fly, (which we are not) the fact the Bumblebee can fly is due to scientific principles and not in spite of them.
For a time in the USA as we reacted to Sputnik, the first rocket sent into space by the Soviets, science was ascendant. We were a society, however briefly, where science was front and center in our decision making. Children widely aspired to become scientists and engineers. More recently we have seemed to have lost our way with respect to science. My concern is that unless science once again becomes front and center in our decision making, becoming once again ascendant, including how our organizations operate we are running some very big risks.
Here is an illustrative example. Pharmaceutical makers were once one of the most respected kinds of organizations that existed. They were trusted and when they put out a product is was pretty much a sure bet that it was a good product. In a report titled “Recapturing the Vision, Restoring trust in the Pharmaceutical Industry…”, PwC describes how that respect was lost and makes suggestions to the industry on how to recapture it.
Take for instance Vioxx, the pain reliever and Merck. Merck for a very long time was one of the most respected companies in one of the most respected industries; it was also one of the most profitable. Science was king and that science was by and large the source of that respect. If Merck said it or put it on the market you could count on it. Historically, the founder of Merck, George W. Merck, created the flowing vision for the company.
“’Our shared vision is to discover, develop and deliver innovative pharmaceutical products that meet a true need and make a real difference to people’s lives.’
‘We strive to put medicine before profit and to continue to seek better ways of improving health and meeting our responsibilities as both a research-led company and a caring employer.’
‘We try never to forget that medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits. The profits follow, and if we have remembered that, they have never failed to appear. The better we have remembered that, the larger they have been.’”- George W Merck, 1950
But in the case of Vioxx and Merck’s subsequent reaction to it a picture somewhat different from George Merck’s original vision emerges. “For years, evidence mounted that Vioxx might increase the risk of heart attacks or strokes. For years, its maker, Merck, disputed such findings. In many ways, the short but highly profitable history of Vioxx may prove to be a story about the triumph of marketing over science.” (NY Times October 1, 2004)
“At a fraction of the price that analysts initially estimated it would pay, Merck, one of the largest American drug makers, hopes to put one of the most troubling episodes in its history behind it. The settlement, $4.85 billion, represents only about nine months of profit for Merck… Two years ago, some analysts estimated that Merck would have to pay as much as $25 billion to settle Vioxx claims.” “Besides Merck, the biggest winner in the case may be the plaintiffs’ lawyers. They will split nearly $2 billion in fees and expenses…” (NY Times November 10, 2007).
The episode has been characterized as the triumph of marketing over science within Merck. Extremely damaged by the episode are the stroke and heart attack victims, the Vioxx users (who on average will get $120,000 before the lawyers take 40%) and the reputation of a once respected organization. One medical expert estimated that only 5-10% of the people who took Vioxx should have been on Vioxx but due to the exceptional marketing of the product that demand greatly increased. While hindsight is a wonderful thing, one can’t help but wonder if this would have happened if science was ascendant at Merck.
R. Barker Bausell a biostatistician at the University of Maryland reviews in his book “Snake Oil Science” what is called complementary and alternative medicine, which as he puts it is the scientific term for “something you heard about from your hairdresser, who thinks she saw it on Oprah”, (Newsweek, December 10, 2007) and includes in his review acupuncture, homeopathy, healing magnets and assorted herbs and supplements. All of these “treatments” are extremely popular today and have no evidence of actually benefiting, other than through the power of suggestion, those who partake of them. People who are in need reach out to any source of comfort and begin to practice wishful or magical thinking. But what concerns me the most about the popularity of these treatments is their growing acceptance into the mainstream, using urban legends, pseudoscience or take- it-on-faith rationales to justify their use. The continual rise of pseudoscience or take-it-on-faith rationales is contributing to a decline in the use of real science in not only our health products but in our everyday personal and organizational lives and we should all be greatly concerned about this.
Repeatedly humanity has been challenged by threats or perceived threats to our existence. Malthus in his 1798 essay predicted that our population growth as a species would outrun our food supply. He did not foresee advances in agriculture including new fertilizers, technology that mechanized farming and vastly improved strains of food crops. Huxley in his 1938 novel “Brave New World” envisions a humanity that must give up it’s essence in order to live in his version of utopia. He did not foresee the new frontiers of space or deep water exploration or the other new challenges that we would make for ourselves, the new frontiers we would choose to explore. Explosive population growth, pollution, shortage of clean drinking water, disease, energy shortages, climate change, deforestation, desertification, sustainable development, the elimination of biodiversity, poverty, hunger, abuse, displaced populations, war and terrorism, we have an extensive list of challenges facing us today and unforeseen even more complex and more difficult challenges will arise in the future.
Our lives and our societies are rapidly getting much more complex and much more interconnected; our organizations are following the same trajectory. Decisions made in one place, one organization or in one area of specialty have wider ranging ripple effects than ever before. The multiple interconnections mean that many of our decisions will cut across social structures, industries, borders, economies and individuals like never before.
Historically solutions to these challenges have been technological and scientific in nature. As our societies and structures become more complex as our challenges become more intricate we must forego the pseudoscience, the take-it-on-faith approach that is so popular now and we must one again make science ascendant.
While these ideas are vast and cover a broad range of topics it may be helpful to take it down to the more mundane concept of the employee life-cycle within an organization to help illustrate the point of a more scientific approach to organizational decision making. The employee life-cycle is the total career time that an employee spends within an organization. Roughly the cycle consists of recruitment, assessment and selection, on-boarding, early-career, mid-career and late-career retention and finally either through the employee’s choice, the organization’s choice or nature’s choice, exiting. In the vast majority of organizations today these activities exist as unconnected, disjointed activities and events, and some organizations use nothing more than the seat-of-your-pants decision making to navigate these waters.
As organizations strive to compete in this ever more complex world, a competitive advantage will be gained by inter-connecting these employee life-cycle events through a rigorous scientific research program aimed at maximizing the organization’s performance at each stage. This life-cycle research can be greatly enhanced by utilizing the vastly improved information systems available today in organizations, for now you can actually track the same individual through these various stages, creating feedback loops from later stages back to earlier stages that enables organizations to improve methods, policies and procedures at each life-cycle stage to enhance performance. Organizations that do this first and do it well will find themselves outperforming their competitive laggards. This scientific approach to the employee life-cycle while perhaps illustrative is merely the very tip of the iceberg in terms of how science can become ascendant in our organizations.
More broadly, taking a rigorous data or fact-based approach to individual decisions, organizational decisions, and societal decisions will help us to literally better weather the storms that are approaching. There will always be some who will be tempted by the quick and dirty, or take-it-on-faith approach sold by others, but the real long-term winners organizationally will be those that do the hard work. And as interconnected societies we have no choice, we need to do the hard work associated with fact-based decision making, founded on scientific principles, not pseudoscience, in order to help assure our long-term success and survival.
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.