The birth of the City Skeptic

Welcome to the City Skeptic – a new blog from the deep dark beating heart of Old London’s financial centre. It’s a blog about science and a blog about money, one that will ponder the ultimate question: Are science and business in any way compatible? More specifically, if businesses and the wider economy were run using sound scientific and evidence-based principles would the world be a better place? Would we all be living in a happy utopia, singing and holding hands?… Or would nothing ever get done?!

Whether this ever gets answered is another question entirely. After all, now I have made a claim that this is a blog about science,  I must play down my own anecdotal experiences and intuition and ponder what empirical evidence exists to support the hypothesis that science in business would be beneficial for society. I suspect that, as for many questions in social science, the answer is not clear and so fully expect this blog to become more of a philosophical exploration of the main question and related questions, rather than a spirited but largely futile attempt to answer it.

I should state now, however, that I am extremely pro-science. It is my personal belief that scientific discoveries have done more for society and the economy in the last 100 years than any other developments. For example I suspect that it was the development of the personal computer and automated manufacturing processes (and possibly cheap 3rd world labour, unfortunately) that contributed more to economic growth in the 1980s/1990s than any other factor and that scientifc medicine has been the single greatest contributor to the current longevity of our species.

As a result of my belief in science, i do think that the question I posed in the first paragraph is a fundamentally scientific one, whether we currently have the tools to answer it or not. By this I mean that the question is theoretically testable. Perhaps we could compare organisations that are run on more scientific principles to those that are not. Are they more profitable? do they contribute to society? Are they better to work for? Maybe we could compare the performance of regulators that set the economic rules and incentives using evidence-based principles to those that don’t. Does that have an impact on a nation’s competitiveness? Is competition between nations for big business even a good idea?

So to what does all this boil down? What is it that has inspired me to start this blog?

Simply this:

I am fundamentally interested in whether or not there is more scope for scientific and critical-thinking in business, an arena that would not normally be considered their natural home.

Business is a fast paced world of snap decisions, gut feeling and the projection of confidence. More fundamentally it is a world of limited information and unknown consequences. It is a place where failure requires blame, good decisions are perceived as being due to skill and bad decisions are never, EVER down to bad luck.

“I don’t know” is never an acceptable answer in business. I tried it once. I even said that not only did I not know answer, but that there was clearly not enough information to form a valid conclusion. It turns out that means I was “weak”, and the other guy that did “know” the answer was “stong”. They went with his decision and as a matter of fact it did not work out too badly for all concerned. How much of that was skill and how much was luck? I’ll never know. But i do know is that there is very little incentive for someone to decline to know the answer.

“I don’t know” is of course a key scientific principle. The word ‘hypothesis’ is basically code for “I don’t know but it would be a good idea to find out, don’t you think?”. The scientific method is the tool that scientists employ to try and understand those “I don’t knows”. It works. It works extremely well. But it does have its limitations. The main one is speed. Gathering scientific evidence is a slow process. It doesn’t easily lend itself to a pre-acquisition due diligence exercise when the deal must be signed next friday! Its also not that effective for deciding which of product A or product B to sell, as the sales data will only be available after the event.  These are good reasons for not using the scientific method in business. But does this lack of science go too far?

What is the proper balance between gathered evidence and snap judgement? This is what I will explore the most. Evidence vs anecdote, considered opinion vs gut instinct, Steven Hawking vs Alan Sugar – these will all be fair game for the City Skeptic.

So let me introduce myself. My name is Andy and I am a skeptic.