The Scientific Method

"Solution of problems too complicated for common sense to solve is achieved by long strings of mixed inductive and deductive inferences that weave back and forth between the observed machine and the mental hierarchy of the machine found in the manuals. The correct program for this interweaving is formalized as Scientific Method." ~ Robert Pirsig, 1974, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Value, p99


The Scientific Method

1. Observe a phenomenon that has no good explanation.

2. Formulate a hypothesis that explains the phenomenon.

3. Design an experiment(s) to test the hypothesis.

4. Perform the experiment(s).

5. Accept, reject, or modify the hypothesis.

The Scientific Method is a rigorous, time tested process for determining the probable truth of any cause-and-effect proposition. The proposition is known as a hypothesis. The method of testing is experimentation. The process has five steps.

As simple as the process looks, it has utterly changed the course of history. So much so that's now called "The Father of All Processes."

Why the Scientific Method is supremely important

The Scientific Method's great claim to fame is it is the only known method for producing reliable new cause-and-effect knowledge. It thus forms the entire foundation of science and all that depends on science, which for modern civilization is all major advances since the Scientific Revolution begin in 1543. That year saw publication of two monumental works that instantly changed the way problem solvers worked: Nicolaus Copernicus's On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres and Andreas Vesalius's On the Fabric of the Human Body. The Scientific Method in its early modern form appeared shortly thereafter with the work of Galileo. Centuries later, Einstein summarized Galileo's accomplishment: 1

Purely logical thinking [untested by experimentation] cannot yield us any [reliable] knowledge of the empirical world; all knowledge of reality starts from experience [observation and experimentation] and ends with it. Propositions arrived at by purely logical means are completely empty as regards reality. Because Galileo realized this, and particularly because he drummed it into the scientific world, he is the father of modern physics—indeed, of modern science altogether.

The Scientific Method is the most influential discovery since the invention of agriculture because it changed the way we think about thinking. Before the Scientific Method, scientific knowledge was based on tradition and common sense. There was no concept of rigorous systematic testing of new propositions. Afterwards there was. Today, any scientist who puts forth a new major hypothesis without first subjecting it to the Scientific Method (theoretically or physically) will not survive as a scientist for long.

There are many versions of what the Scientific Method actually is. We have boiled down the concept to its simplest essential form. The method derives its power from the way it forces hypotheses to evolve via cycles of experimentation until they are either rock solid or tossed out as unworthy of being added to the world's storehouse of proven scientific knowledge. The method is not perfect. False or weak hypotheses slip through. But it's several orders of magnitude better than what came before it, which was no hypothesis testing at all.

An example of how scientists use the Scientific Method

Step 1. Observe a phenomenon that has no good explanation

For a scientist the problem to solve is what is the cause of a particular effect?

For the 17th century English physician John Snow, the problem to solve was what is the cause of diseases like cholera and the Black Death? There was no good explanation for the phenomenon of cholera at the time, which had a mortality rate of about 50%. Snow's scientific approach to solving the cause of cholera problem is one of the great classics of science. His eventual solution was so profound, and so epitomized the practical use of the Scientific Method, that he is remembered as the father of epidemiology (the study of contagious diseases in a population).

Step 2. Formulate a hypothesis

John Snow had long been skeptical of the then dominant miasma theory that diseases like cholera were caused by a noxious form of foul air: 2

Miasma was considered to be a poisonous vapor or mist filled with particles from decomposed matter (miasmata) that caused illnesses. The Miasmatic position was that diseases were the product of environmental factors such as contaminated water, foul air, and poor hygienic conditions. Such infection was not passed between individuals but would affect individuals who resided within the particular locale that gave rise to such vapors. It was identifiable by its foul smell.

John Snow's spot map of the 1854 London choloera epidemicThere was no proof miasma theory was true so Snow rejected the theory and sought to find a proper one. When a virulent cholera epidemic broke out in London in 1854, Snow investigated. Through interviews he collected data about which houses cholera deaths occurred in. In his later study the data was plotted in the form of a spot map, as shown.

Here in John Snow's own words is the reasoning he went through to develop his hypothesis: 3

On proceeding to the spot, I found that nearly all the deaths had taken place within a short distance of the [Broad Street] pump. There were only ten deaths in houses situated decidedly nearer to another street-pump. In five of these cases the families of the deceased persons informed me that they always sent to the pump in Broad Street, as they preferred the water to that of the pumps which were nearer. In three other cases, the deceased were children who went to school near the pump in Broad Street....

With regard to the deaths occurring in the locality belonging to the pump, there were 61 instances in which I was informed that the deceased persons used to drink the pump water from Broad Street, either constantly or occasionally...

The result of the inquiry, then, is, that there has been no particular outbreak or prevalence of cholera in this part of London except among the persons who were in the habit of drinking the water of the above-mentioned pump well.

On the basis of this evidence Snow concluded that drinking water from the Broad Street well pump caused cholera. It was a radical hypothesis for the time.

Step 3. Design an experiment(s) to test the hypothesis

Snow then devised an experiment so simple it rings in the minds of scientists to this day. The experiment was to remove the Broad Street pump handle immediately. If the hypothesis was true this would stop the cholera epidemic. Continuing the above quote:

I had an interview with the Board of Guardians of St James's parish, on the evening of the 7th inst [Sept 7], and represented the above circumstances to them. In consequence of what I said, the handle of the pump was removed on the following day.

Step 4. Perform the experiment(s)

The pump handle was removed. The epidemic ended. Deaths quickly trailed off and fell to zero. Those who had fled the neighborhood moved back and life soon returned to normal.

Step 5. Accept, reject, or modify the hypothesis

Since the epidemic had already started to fade it was not clear if the experiment proved the hypothesis or not:

There is no doubt that the mortality was much diminished, as I said before, by the flight of the population, which commenced soon after the outbreak; but the attacks had so far diminished before the use of the water was stopped, that it is impossible to decide whether the well still contained the cholera poison in an active state, or whether, from some cause, the water had become free from it.

Snow had been working on his hypothesis before the London cholera epidemic of 1854. He had first published On the Mode of Communication of Cholera in 1849. Using what he learned from the 1854 epidemic, he improved his argument and published a second edition in 1855 with the spot map of deaths. The report concluded that: 4

Diseases which are communicated from person to person are caused by some material which passes from the sick to the healthy, and which has the property of increasing and multiplying in the systems of the persons it attacks. In syphilis, smallpox, and vaccinia, we have physical proof of the increase of the morbid material, and in other communicable diseases the evidence of this increase, derived from the fact of their extension, is equally conclusive. As cholera commences with an affection of the alimentary canal, and as we have seen that the blood is not under the influence of any poison in the early stages of this disease,[5] it follows that the morbid material producing cholera must be introduced into the alimentary canal [and] must, in fact, be swallowed accidentally, for persons would not take it intentionally....

However, due to paradigm change resistance: 5

After the cholera epidemic had subsided, government officials replaced the Broad Street Pump Handle. They had responded only to the urgent threat posed to the population, and afterward they rejected Snow's theory. To accept his proposal would be indirectly accepting the oral-fecal method transmission of disease, which was too unpleasant for most of the public.

The local officials were not scientists. They listened to their voting public rather than the muse of the Scientific Method and all of science, which believes The Truth Has No Higher Master. Science soon accepted Snow's new theory and the field of epidemiology was born.

How problem solvers use the Scientific Method

For scientists working on fundamental cause-and-effect problems, the problem is "What is the cause of a particular effect?" For problem solvers in general we must restate how the Scientific Method is used, since its application is not that obvious.

Diagram of cause and effect

Showing how the solution hypothesis is the cause and the desired goal state is the effect. This is a cause-and-effect relationship.

From a systems thinking point of view a system with a problem has two states: the present state and the goal state. In the goal state problem symptoms are gone. Systems thinking problem solvers thus state their hypothesis as "This solution will cause the effect of the system moving to the goal state." The solution is the cause. The solved problem is the effect.

Next we examine how environmentalism has used the Scientific Method. Then we examine how, without realizing it, environmentalism made a critical error in use of the Scientific Method. Finally we present how the error can be corrected.

How environmentalism has used the Scientific Method

Step 1. Observe a phenomenon that has no good explanation

The goal of the environmental movement is to solve the environmental sustainability problem. There is "no good explanation" in the sense there is no solution that would explain how to solve the problem.

Step 2. Formulate a hypothesis

The environmental movement has formulated one solution hypothesis after another. Here's a short history:

Successive Generations of Solutions

1. Conservation parks, beginning with Yellowstone National Park in 1872. The idea was that wilderness areas and wildlife were fast disappearing and that the problem could be solved by creation of conservation parks.

2. End-of-pipe regulation, such as pollution limits, fines, and cleanup funding, like Super Fund.

3. Beginning-of-pipe regulation, such as mandated use of best technology. This solution was preferred to end of pipe regulations because it is much cheaper to prevent pollution in the first place than to deal with it later.

4. International treaties, like the Montreal Protocol and the Kyoto Protocol.

5. Economic instruments, like carbon taxes and emission permit trading.

The hypothesis is proposing these solutions will solve the problem. This is different from saying these solutions will solve the problem, a subtle but critical distinction. If a solution is proposed but never accepted, it's a failed solution. Environmentalists tend to miss this distinction. To them, solution failure means a solution was implemented and then failed to solve the problem.

Step 3. Design an experiment(s) to test the hypothesis

The experiment is to design solutions like those listed above and then propose them to political institutions at the local, national, and international level. In systems thinking terms, the hypothesis is proposing these solutions will cause the effect of the system moving to the goal state of an acceptable level of problem symptoms.

Step 4. Perform the experiment(s)

The experiment was performed. Every one of the classes of solutions listed above has failed, which is why the successive generations of solutions were devised. Solution failure was apparent long ago. For example, here's what the results looked like in 2000: 6

The task of developing an ecologically sustainable society is a major challenge facing current social institutions. However, the results achieved so far make this imperative appear to be only a utopian fantasy, fast receding from our grasp. Since the first Earth Day of 1970, a number of actions have been taken in the United States [and elsewhere] to deal with environmental degradation. Although there has been some incremental progress in reversing some of the worst forms of visible pollution, it pales in comparison to the changes that are needed.

The third edition of Limits to Growth in 2004 painted the results even more bluntly: (page xvi)

…we are much more pessimistic about the global future than we were in 1972. It is a sad fact that humanity has largely squandered the past 30 years in futile debates and well-intentioned, but half-hearted, responses to the global ecological challenge. We do not have another 30 years to dither. Much will have to change if the ongoing overshoot is not to be followed by collapse during the twenty-first century.

For further proof the experiment failed examine the graph below. The environmental movement has had little effect on footprint growth.

Graph of ecological footprint growth

Step 5. Accept, reject, or modify the hypothesis

The experiment failed so the hypothesis cannot be accepted. It must be rejected or modified. Environmentalists have chosen to modify their hypotheses (solutions) and try them again, with all sorts of little tweaks and improvements. This has not worked, which indicates something is fundamentally wrong with the entire collection of hypotheses.

Where environmentalism erred in use of the Scientific Method

It would seem that environmentalism has slipped into a rut. Without realizing it, the field is promoting solutions that differ superficially but are all fundamentally the same because they all fail. This brings to mind a popular quote misattributed to Albert Einstein:

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing
over and over and expecting different results.

What is environmentalism doing wrong? Where have they erred in use of the Scientific Method?

It's pretty simple. Environmentalism has failed to reject the hypothesis that proposing solutions like those listed above will work. The field has ignored massive proof its hypothesis is false. When a long series of solutions (each is a hypothesis) fail no matter how you modify them, that's proof you should reject the hypothesis. But this has been impossible for environmentalism to do because they have no alternative hypothesis.

Prescience prestep of Kuhn Cycle

Click a node to read about it.

Let's shift gears to a higher level of abstraction. Environmentalism is in the Prescience stage of the Kuhn Cycle. It has no central paradigm that works. If it did it would be producing solutions that work.

Environmentalism uses the pre-paradigm of Classic Activism. This process generated the field's long string of solutions that have mostly failed. Environmental activists have stubbornly refused to abandon Classic Activism because, as Thomas Kuhn explains: 7

...once it has achieved the status of a paradigm, a scientific theory is declared invalid only if an alternative candidate is available to take its place.

Once a first paradigm through which to view nature has been found, there is no such thing as research in the absence of any paradigm. To reject one paradigm without simultaneously substituting another is to reject science itself.

Classic Activism has worked on other large social problems like slavery, universal suffrage, and civil rights. But it hasn't worked on the environmental sustainability problem. The world's environmental activists, however, have no other paradigm to turn to, so they are making a mistake that comes natural.

An alternative paradigm that could possibly work

A paradigm is a comprehensive model of understanding that provides a field's members with viewpoints and rules on how to look at the field's problems and how to solve them. For example:

The life sciences use the paradigm of Darwinian evolution and build from there.

Physics starts with Newton's three laws of motion and the universal law of gravity.

Chemistry begins with Mendeleev's Periodic Table of the Elements as its all encompassing foundation.

As we saw above, epidemiology builds on the principle that diseases like cholera and the Black Death are spread by microorganisms that are contagious.

What comprehensive foundational paradigm will work for environmentalism?

The pattern in the life sciences, physics, chemistry, and epidemiology is the kernel of truth is small, elegant, and somehow provides a solid foundation that can be built on indefinitely. We believe the starting kernel of truth for environmentalism can be a single principle:

Fundamental Principle

The only way to solve a difficult problem
is to resolve its root causes.

The analysis at found the reason sustainability solutions failed in the past was they did not resolve at least four main root causes, as listed in this Summary of Analysis Results. From this we can extract a comprehensive set of foundational principles:

Principle 1. Root Cause Resolution

All problems arise from their root causes. From this principle arises the need for all the rest.

Principle 2. Sufficient Process Maturity

All problems are solved by a series of steps. Different problems require different steps. Difficult problems require different steps from easy problems. A process is a reusable series of steps and related practices to achieve a goal. Therefore the process must fit the problem.

This principle can be restated. From the viewpoint of process maturity, the more difficult the problem, the better the process used to solve it must be. The sustainability problem is so difficult it requires a formal mature process that fits the problem.

Principle 3. Causal Structure

The behavior of a complex system emerges from its causal structure. This can be understood only by modeling a problem's essential causal structure, which must include the root causes.

Principle 4. Subproblem Decomposition

The sustainability problem is too complex to solve without first decomposing it into subproblems. All difficult social problems contain at least these three subproblems:
1. How to overcome change resistance
2. How to achieve proper coupling
3. How to avoid excessive model drift

Principle 5. Solution Chain Identification

Each subproblem can be solved by identifying its solution chain. Finding the causal structure of a subproblem will reveal its symptoms, intermediate causes, and root causes. You can then identify the high leverage points for resolving the root causes. Solution elements can then be developed to push on the high leverage points. The causal chain running from the solution elements to symptoms is the solution chain.

The last principle is the payoff for this approach. The solution hypothesis is "this is the solution chain for this subproblem." Compare this to environmentalism's present solution hypothesis of "proposing these solutions will solve the problem." The reason usually given is "because it resolves these causes." That hypothesis states a solution chain of only three links: solutions, causes (really intermediate causes), and symptoms. Principle 5, when implemented via the System Improvement Process, uses a solution chain of eight links:

1. The solution evolution plan for how to manage the solution elements.
2. The solution elements for pushing on the high leverage points.
3. The high leverage points for activating the loops in link 4.
4. The feedback loops that need to go dominant to resolve the root causes.
5. The root causes, which cause the intermediate causes.
6. The intermediate causes, which drive the loops in link 7.
7. The immediate cause feedback loops causing the symptoms.
8. The problem symptoms.

How all this works is shown below. Note how each of the principles maps to something in the table. The solution evolution plan is analysis and model driven.

Diagram of mapping principles to analysis results table

The Summary of Analysis Results table essentially is the paradigm, just as the Periodic Table is the paradigm in chemistry.

The table offers two important insights into why environmentalism's current solutions fail:

1. Current solutions do not resolve root causes. The analysis shows that current solutions use a solution chain of symptomatic solutions, low leverage points, intermediate causes, immediate cause loops, and symptoms. (One such chain is shown above in red. It's where most environmental movement and government effort goes.) Since root causes are nowhere on that chain, solution failure is inevitable.

2. Current solutions ignore the change resistance subproblem. As a result, most solutions are rejected by the system.

Suppose environmentalism adopted something like the above principles and built upon them. This could lead to:

Environmentalism 2.0

Imagine a world where environmental activists work totally differently from today. There's little emphasis on motivating the masses by inspirational messages, articles about what you can do to be green, demonstrations, boycotts, or appeals to Corporate Social Responsibility. There's also little work by activists on developing more sustainable technologies or focusing on particular industries (like fossil fuel) and trying to convert them to a more sustainable approach. Small amounts of this occur, but the bulk of the movement's energies now go to methodically finding and resolving the root causes of the sustainability problem.

In short, environmentalists have become scientists.

In this brave new world the average environmentalist spends most of her time in analysis. Environmentalists have become the world's R&D department for how to solve the sustainability problem by use of the powerful tools of root causes analysis, process driven problem solving, and model based analysis. They are no longer classic activists. They now see themselves as analytical activists with a passion to firmly establish The Normal Science of Sustainability, as defined in the Kuhn Cycle. Some, especially those who have trained for years in their new analytical specialities, wear white coats with things like "In Search of The Analytical Truth and Other Silly Things" or "The Truth Has No Higher Master" on the back.

These days when you interview for a job at an established environmental organization, the questions are tough:

How would you apply Six Sigma or Hoshin Kanri to an investigation of how to improve our problem solving process?

What projects have you worked on that experimentally verified their root cause conclusions?

What root causes have you personally played a hand in finding?

Here's a one page description of a problem we're working on. There's a white board. Show us how you would strategically go about solving the problem if you were the project manager.

What's your modeling background?

What approaches have your models taken to memetic infection and social agent adaptation?

What's your top ten network of contacts in the area of problem solving process management and improvement?

When designing a targeted lobbying campaign for a proposed solution element, what approach would you take to analytical preparation to ensure its success?

How would you compare European, American, and Chinese environmental organizations, including those at the government level, on their problem solving processes? Which do you think work better and why?

The salaries are excellent. In fact, they exceed industry averages because public interest problems are inherently more difficult to solve than business problems. Smart environmental managers know this and budget accordingly.

All that top talent combined with a root cause analysis approach has led to one success after another. Funding is pouring into the movement from private and public sources. The growing success of the movement has led to a spike in sustainability problem solving and solution management employment. It's now a high paying, high status professional career, right up there with engineering and law.

It's a vision that dozens of fields have achieved. It all starts when a few innovators pioneer what becomes a field's first foundational paradigm that works.

If you are one of these, then please join us in Striking at the Root.


(1) The Einstein quote about Galileo is from Ideas and Opinions, by Albert Einstein, 1954, p271.

(2) The quote about miasma is from the Wikipedia entry on miasma theory.

(3) The quote on John Snow's investigation is from the Wikipedia entry for the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak.

(4) From John Snow's Mode of Communication of Cholera, 1855.

(5) From the political controversy about the cholera epidemic.

(6) Quote from Agency, Democracy, and Nature: The U. S. Environmental Movement from a Critical Theory Perspective, by Robert Brulle, 2000, page 1.

(7) Quote from The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, 1996, pages 77 and 79.

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What Is Six Sigma?

Here's what iSixSigma has to say:

Six Sigma at many organizations simply means a measure of quality that strives for near perfection. Six Sigma is a disciplined, data-driven approach and methodology for eliminating defects... in any process....

According to the Six Sigma Academy, Black Belts save companies approximately $230,000 per project and can complete four to 6 projects per year. General Electric, one of the most successful companies implementing Six Sigma, has estimated benefits on the order of $10 billion during the first five years of implementation. GE first began Six Sigma in 1995 after Motorola and Allied Signal blazed the Six Sigma trail. Since then, thousands of companies around the world have discovered the far reaching benefits of Six Sigma.

What is Hoshin Kanri?

The book Hoshin Kanri: The Strategic Approach to Continuous Improvement, by David Hutchins, 2008, describes it this way:

The results of the quality revolution have been mixed. Global competition has elevated the most successful companies, in terms of providing goods and services, but even then initiatives such as total quality, business process re-engineering and Six Sigma have been heralded as the solution, only to have been replaced with the next 'big thing' when it came along.

Hoshin Kanri is not the next big thing in quality, it is a strategic approach to continuous improvement that provides a context for all of the individual elements such as Six Sigma or Lean Manufacturing.

Where Does the System Improvement Process Fit In?

Six Sigma and Hoshin Kanri are generic processes. They allow general overall process optimization. However, for your core competencies you need a process that fits your problem closely.

For that has developed the System Improvement Process (SIP). It was designed from scratch to solve difficult social problems. SIP is a wrapper for root cause analysis so that tool can be applied to social problems.

Start with SIP. After a few years with that it will be obvious what additional processes you need.