Ah! The joys of hypothesis, theory and scientific law! The uncomfortable feeling when they don’t mean what you want them to mean!
I don’t want to get into a huge debate between scientific theory and law, only to say that when I went to school theory was something that was speculated but not proven and Law was something that had been held to be true due to the facts.
Now, in none of these cases can it ever be said that they will never be disproved, our knowledge is complete only up to today, and no-one should be foolish enough to try to determine today what tomorrow’s science will be. And yet …..
Take the “Theory of Evolution” – it is a scientific theory which cannot be proven but has not yet been disproved. It is therefore what my science teacher used to call a “speculative fact” and we were warned against closing our minds to the possibility that it may sometime in the future be proven either true or untrue.
What is the position today? The following quotation from H. J. Muller, “One Hundred Years Without Darwin Are Enough” puts it in a nutshell
There is no sharp line between speculation, hypothesis, theory, principle, and fact, but only a difference along a sliding scale, in the degree of probability of the idea. When we say a thing is a fact, then, we only mean that its probability is an extremely high one: so high that we are not bothered by doubt about it and are ready to act accordingly. Now in this use of the term fact, the only proper one, evolution is a fact.  (Emphasis mine)
Obviously Muller has decided that Evolution is a fact, and therefore refuses to be bothered by doubts about it. And by redefining the meaning of the word ’fact’ to his own satisfaction now makes the sweeping assumption that his definition is the only proper one. Those who oppose the Theory of Evolution might well dispute this.
We can see the same thing happening in the debate on Global Warming as it did with the Y2K Theory. The ideas on global warming are still in the theory stage, but nations are being asked to make massive commitment to action based on an assumption that it is a fact. When we accept something as a ‘fact’ it narrows our options, and limits our choices.
Over the last twenty or more years we have been inundated with Business and Management Theories – many of which were passed on to incoming executives as if they were fact. These were accepted by them as irrefutable laws which must be obeyed to achieve success – and in good times bad theories may get buried under high returns.
Actually bad theories may focus on obtaining high returns without being bothered by doubts about it. Doubts which if allowed to surface may have queried the ethical or long term effects – we shall never know, because they were not raised loud enough to be investigated.
Perhaps what is needed now is to re-evaluate some of the wider held theories on Management Practice in the light of the present conditions. Changed economic circumstances produce new evidence about the effect of those theories, and we may now need to be bothered about doubts of their effectiveness. But would it be of benefit in the future?
In 1985 Robert Heller published The Naked Manager in which he was scathing about the practices of American Business. And he had this to say about what was happening:
“But behind the façade of the LBO, other time-dishonored [sic] acts of managerial folly are being repeated on a still grander scale – a debt spree of unprecedented proportions … Once again, the gunslingers cloak their activities with the current language of fashionable Management Theory”(2)”
It could have been written today!
Heller was hopeful for the future, a hope that must have been dashed by now – but he does make the point that Business Theories have limited use. He shows that circumstances change so dramatically from industry to industry that what is effective management for one company may bring about the downfall of another. By telling incoming executives that there is a theory that is proven to work, we leave them with the idea that this is actually fact and therefore is workable in all situations. Heller shows that it is not.
Let us not make the mistake of confusing our theories with fact – theories are ideas that may work, but should not be accepted as laws that cannot be defied or ignored. Discuss, dispute and dispose of if found wanting should be the only theory worth keeping in Business Management today. Let us take a warning from the Y2K scientists – we too can be brought down by not being bothered by doubts about the reality of what we are saying.
Let’s discern the fact from the fiction.
(2) Robert Heller, The Naked Manager – Games Executives Play, Truman Tally Books, New York, 1985 p xiii