by MERLIN CROSSLEY
People often treat me with great courtesy because I’m a scientist. They present graphs and data and say – you’ll understand. Sometimes I do.
But to me the great thing about a scientific training, and really any good training, is not that it teaches you how to weigh and interpret data, rather it teaches you what to do when there is no data, or at least no good data.
Most big decisions in life are taken in the face of no or inadequate data. If there is a lot of data, then it’s not a decision – it’s a given, or in modern language a “no brainer.”
Most decisions are made on the basis of “instinct.” Not actual, technical instinct, but the type of decision-making that comes from weighing up a thousand subtle clues and hints, rather than unequivocal data. Or decisions are not made – instead, agreements are reached. This is a vital distinction.
I try to help my PhD students interpret data but – to state the obvious – when they start their projects they have no data. They, together with me, make agreements, not on the basis of data but in the total absence of data. This is one of the great things that PhD training has to offer. It teaches you what to do when there is no data. It teaches you to be comfortable in data deserts.
And here’s what we do. We talk through what we think we know and what we think the path through the darkness might lead to. We weigh up our hopes for the project. Then we – or these days to be honest, my students – get to work exploring.
The most important part of beginning the journey is not arguing about or weighing up data, it is about coming to an agreement. We agree together what should be done. We make a pact about the way to progress. It is this pact that provides the confidence needed to brave the darkness of ignorance – together.
As the supervisor I can have a lot of influence in driving an agreement, so I try to remember this and support my students to explore their own ideas, and many do. But the main point is that once we’ve agreed on something, they can move forward with complete support.
It may be that we are going in the wrong direction. It may be that our initial thoughts were based on dreams, on wishful thinking, and we’re in for disappointment. But by agreeing up front, and by me supporting the student, we can all be confident that we are in it together. If it works, it is a joint celebration. If it doesn’t, we comfort each other and head in a new direction. There is no risk that anyone will ever say in frustration – why did you do that? There is no blame. This helps us try new and difficult projects.
In management there is also often a shortage of good data. We also don’t always know the precise way forward. Even when a project is delivered on time and on budget, we are always haunted by unintended and unforeseen consequences.
The world is complicated and despite all the graphs, tables and attempts to be scientific, to present evidence, and to distinguish causes from correlations, it’s never an exact science. To me the biggest problem is when a pseudo-science mindset takes hold and people, unaware of the limitations of the data, follow weak arguments like a mindless driver following a faulty GPS guide off a cliff – when it would have been better to admit that the data had limitations and it really wasn’t possible to identify the best way forward.
When you really don’t know, it is better to be like Socrates, and admit you don’t know. Then in shared ignorance you make a good faith agreement rather than a decision. The group agrees which way to go, rather than the leader insisting that they are Moses and can lead everyone out of the wilderness. The process doesn’t work very well if too many people are hoping for the messiah though! Fortunately, in university management at least most of the community has learnt not to expect miracles.
Professor Merlin Crossley
Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic