One of the first concepts I learned in a university course on statistics was not about regression analysis or significance of results but, rather, on the importance of doubt. Our professor drilled home the point that no matter how large our dataset and how clever our hypothesis, our results should always be presented using language such as “suggests” or “points toward” rather than “demonstrates” or “proves.” This is because even the most comprehensive dataset and sophisticated analysis will always be missing some variables, and we cannot always be certain that the findings from our work were caused by the variables we chose to analyze versus other data elements that we may not have assessed.
The phenomenon of “big data” can tempt us to think that we can have unprecedented levels of certainty in our work today, so a reminder of the importance of doubt for innovators warrants consideration.
Injecting doubt into our work as innovation practitioners is important for two primary reasons. First, doubt keeps our minds open to other possibilities that can explain a phenomenon. New thinking often comes from exploring concepts outside our comfort zones and if we have supreme confidence in the conclusions we reach at all times, we close the door to other ideas that might be worth exploring.
This concept matches Thomas Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions which postulates that scientific progress occurs in a series of fits and starts as scientists advocate for a dominant paradigm and gather evidence to support that paradigm. However, a series of anomalies tend to emerge over time that challenge the paradigm in the form of incidents that cannot be explained by the leading theory. Once enough anomalies exist to overwhelm the paradigm, scientists begin work on a new paradigm that better explains the anomalies and subsequently move their support to a new paradigm that overtakes the old theory and sets up a new mode of thinking. Kuhn refers to this phenomenon as a “paradigm shift.”
Leveraging doubt in our work keeps our minds attuned to the possibility of finding anomalies and doing the research required to find new paradigms that can account for these anomalies.
A second reason why doubt is important for innovation is that injecting a sense of doubt into what we present can help us maintain long-term credibility with colleagues and clients because it is inevitable that even the most perfectly prepared and seemingly impregnable innovation can fall flat on its face for unexpected reasons. Most innovators can recall a time when they worked long hours on a new approach, concept, product, or idea and thought that it would be a smashing success when presented to a colleague or client, only to conduct the meeting and find our ideas rejecting for some unanticipated objection. It is said that even the best-laid plans can go to waste, and innovation is not immune to this possibility.
By presenting our findings with a small layer of doubt, we protect ourselves so that in the case of a failed initiative we can protect our credibility for future interactions.
I recently read Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics and found excellent examples of the importance of doubt that can reinforce this message for innovators. The first comes from Albert Einstein, perhaps the best-known scientist in history. In one instance cited by Rovelli, Einstein demonstrated that light consists of particles of light (referred to nowadays as photons0. In an article he wrote on the subject, Einstein stated: “It seems to me that the observations associated with blackbody radiation, fluorescence, the production of cathode rays by ultraviolet light, and other related phenomena connected with the emission or transformation of light are more readily understood if one assumes the energy of light is discontinuously distributed in space.” The statement above, Rovelli writes, represents “the real birth certificate of quantum theory.” Yet Rovelli marvels at the seed of doubt that Einstein injects into such a monumental idea and relates it to other great thinkers and their use of self-doubt in language:
Note the wonderful initial ‘It seems to me …’, which recalls the ‘I think …’ with which Darwin introduces in his notebooks the great idea that species evolve, or the ‘hesitation’ spoken of by Faraday when introducing for the first time the revolutionary idea of magnetic fields. Genius hesitates. The work of Einstein was initially treated by colleagues as the nonsensical juvenilia of an exceptionally brilliant youth. Subsequently, it was for the same work that he received the Nobel Prize.
Another case cited by Rovelli in which a brilliant mind demonstrated ongoing doubt was that of the physicist Neils Bohr. Bohr and Einstein, Rovelli notes, were “engaged in an extended contretemps in debating the old and new ideas of physics, in particular Heisenberg’s theories on probability.” Heisenberg’s thesis was that “[i]t is not possible to predict where an electron will reappear, but only to calculate the probability that it will pop up here or there.” Bohr tried repeatedly to explain this concept to Einstein, which led the latter to develop a mental experiment known as the “box of light” in an attempt to demonstrate the contradictory nature of the “new” physics of Bohr and Heisenberg.
Einstein asked Bohr to “[i]magine a box filled with light, from which we allow a single photon to escape for an instant.” According to Rovelli, the dialog between Einstein and Bohr continued for years in the form of “lectures, letters, articles,” and over “the course of the exchange both great men needed to backtrack, to change their thinking.” Einstein came to admit that the contradictions in the new ideas were not as omnipresent, as he originally thought, and Bohr acknowledged that the new ideas were not as “simple and clear” as he anticipated. When Einstein passed away, Rovelli observes, “his greatest rival Bohr found for him words of moving admiration.” Bohr died a few years later, and someone took a picture of the chalkboard in Bohr’s study. Amazingly, the board contained a drawing of the light-filled box from Einstein’s thought experiment. Rovelli opines that “[t]o the very last, [Bohr demonstrated] the desire to challenge oneself and understand more […a]nd to the very last: doubt.”
Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).
Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lesson on Physics (London: Allen Lane, 2014).
image credit: casayouth.com; commons.wikimedia.org
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Scott Bowden is an independent innovation analyst. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has Ph.D. in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter @sgbowden
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