Scientific thinking is a secret card up your sleeve, it worked for Einstein, Curie and Hawking, and it can help you too. You don’t have to be a scientist but sometimes it helps to think like one. How do scientists think? By making an assumption, testing it against data and evidence, updating their opinion and coming to a conclusion. A cornerstone of future skills, scientific thinking is about thoughtful decision-making, it’s a step-by-step process and it’s easy to learn. 

What is scientific thinking?

Scientific thinking is the ability – or actually the habit – of thinking like a scientist. It’s what distinguishes the genuine expert on any subject from someone with only a shallow familiarity based on a couple of data points and some jargon.

Flawed assumptions made too quickly can have long-lasting effects. It’s important to keep an open mind so that when you find new data you can revise your assumption. This process of updating your beliefs based on new information is key to scientific thinking. Conclusions supported by evidence lead to rational decisions that encourage other people to trust your opinion. Scientific thinking strengthens your credibility, trustworthiness, and authority.

Deanna Kuhn, of the Teachers College at Columbia University, connects scientific thinking to argumentative thinking, where evidence is relied on in persuading others of the validity of your argument.

Kuhn defines scientific thinking as a “specific reasoning strategy”, in other words purposeful thinking that can be best thought of as “knowledge seeking”. It’s not about science itself, or even scientific aptitude. Scientific thinking is something people do, not something they have. It relies on the kind of rigorous, evidence-based thinking that is essential to science, but not specific to it. For these reasons, scientific thinking is engaged in by most people rather than a rarefied few.

Key elements of scientific thinking

Sometimes, you can face a situation that might seem like a rush of complexity and frenzy. For example – your sales may show an unexpected dip that can’t be immediately explained. Early assumptions might point to a downturn in internal performance, but perhaps there’s more to it than that. To manage complexity, it helps to build solid points of understanding, each refining your assumption and leading you through the problem, like stepping-stones across a river.

Stepping from one point to the next, you start with an assumption, then challenge this with early information. This helps you revise your assumption. Additional data takes you a step further – transforming your assumption into a stronger conclusion. Getting through complexity by taking one careful step at a time is a better bet than leaping to a wobbly assumption that might strand you in deep water.

Scientific thinking skills

Astronomer Moiya McTier offers three simple steps, which we’ve paraphrased here:

1) Learn to distinguish between observables and assumptions

The brain uses automatic assumptions (heuristics) to get from observation to action as quickly as possible. When we look out of the window and see blue sky and sunshine, we assume it’s warm. On questioning this assumption, by stepping outside, we actually find it’s cold. That’s why in business we need to verify our natural assumptions: Do you know the client is happy with your product, or are you assuming so based on their buying record? Avoid mistakes, by asking good questions.

2) Be guided by your questions, rather than your task

Scientists take things slowly, only moving to the next step when they’re sure of the last. The rest of us tend to gallop towards achieving the task. If the numbers are down on last year, and the task is to improve them, then maybe we need to sell more products? Better, however, to ask questions each step of the way. Why were the numbers down? Let’s answer that before racing towards a remedy.

3) For every question, create a working hypothesis

Having focused on a question, how will you know when you’ve answered it? Scientists form assumptions (hypotheses), giving them a direction to go in. If their findings match their hypothesis, they’re on the right track. If not, they need to revise their ideas, and ask new questions. In everyday life, we also use hypotheses all the time, but rarely voice them. They lie hidden in a lot of discussions. For example, someone asserts that sales are up 20% but profits only up 5%, indicating that we need to cut costs. Maybe. But the hidden hypothesis is that the disappointing profitability is caused by inefficiency. It may be. Or maybe the increased sales are of products with a lower profit margin. In that case, the problem – if there is one – is more complex.  Finding efficiencies might be the way forward but it’s not the whole story.

Scientific thinking examples

Beware – the brain craves clarity and will try to interpret something as 100% likely or 0% likely. And in the same way, it rather primitively divides scenarios into two groups: complex = no meaningful action possible; simple = let’s fix it now! We are biased to seek out simplistic explanations that open the gates to action. This urge is best restrained by asking more questions and reshaping your hypothesis. By rigorously and accurately finding causes, you’re more likely to adopt appropriate reactions.

Being cautious is less fun than getting excited about a promising idea. So we can be too quick to latch on to something that sounds good. Likewise, we can be too slow to let go of what we’re attached to. When new evidence contradicts existing beliefs, a defensive reaction is triggered in the brain. Think of it like an immune system: the brain rejects and attacks information that would disrupt our model of the world.

In the example earlier, the concerns about sales led to early assumptions about internal performance. If however the data shows that your sales team are meeting KPIs, the problem may need more investigation. New evidence may point to the fact that clients’ budgets are shrinking in the face of uncertain economic data.

The objective of a scientific approach is to develop interpretations of information that are accurate enough for leaders to rely on when deciding on a course of action. Pursuing the process in search of definitive proof is likely to be an impossible task, nor is it necessary. Instead, what leaders principally need is reasonable grounds for action.

Types of scientific thinking

We’ve seen that scientific thinking is a useful skill in managing specific complex questions. Once mastered as a habit however, scientific thinking can continuously play a background role in helping us manage routine aspects of daily life.

In particular, the deluge of content and data we experience in our digital lives, at home and at work, can be overwhelming. It’s deliberately attention-grabbing, seeking to persuade us to buy into its messaging, often literally.

Similarly, in the relentless pace of modern work, decisions are made at full tilt with the picture changing in real time. An ability to swiftly assess the evidence, data and analysis we’re served up is pivotal.

We don’t always have the time and space needed to step back and think, but going with the flow leaves us open to influence. Did you know, for example, that when Facebook switched its message alert (the tiny circle at the corner of the icon that tells you how many messages are waiting for you) from blue to red, engagement rocketed: the colour change triggered a decision to check the messages?

Marketing, media and PR professionals know how to influence our thoughts and behaviour in a thousand tiny ways. And every designer of websites and pitch books uses multiple micro-prompts to smooth the reader’s path towards a decision.

Even if you are not in those influencing professions, you yourself probably do your best to use those methods. The reports and presentations you put together are designed to persuade – not just inform. It would be a great compliment to be told that you’d delivered a ‘compelling’ presentation, but let’s stop and think what that means: to ‘compel’ is to force, to give someone no choice but to believe.

So, there is a lot more compelling data around than there used to be and to resist its appeal – and keep as objective as possible – we need to activate our critical faculties. That’s what scientific thinking can do for us.

How to develop scientific thinking?

With practice. The first few times we put the brakes on, step back, and review our thinking process, it will feel ponderous and pedantic. After all, the way we were thinking was probably fine; our intuition about the solution was probably as good as any other problem-solving process. But once scientific thinking becomes habitual, we can do it on the run, which is how we have to do most things these days.

At Working Voices, our range of courses in future skills will help you keep a competitive edge in the uncertain years ahead. In particular, our course on scientific thinking focuses on keeping an open mind in using new data to revise early assumptions. We don’t all need to be scientists. But by habitually relying on the ability to revise interpretations, we can make the informed decisions that will demystify complexity and give us a direction to go in.


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