Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Proof by authority: reflections on knowing something

One of my grown children once said something to the effect of, "I'm trying to be very careful about taking things on 'proof by authority'." I hadn't heard the phrase before, but I found it immediately compelling. I searched Google for the phrase and discovered there are a number of pages that include it along with 35 other proof methods we sometimes use.

There are a number of methods of proof. Many of you who took serious mathematics or logic courses along the way may have seen modus ponens, modus tollens, and the like. We also have other ways we can know things: we can use statistics to understand masses of data, we can use the scientific method to understand things about the natural world (some might suggest the principles of the scientific method underly much of the way we really know things), and we can use action research to understand fuzzy and often qualitative situations. We can have faith in things we may not have proven or be able to prove. And, yes, we often accept proof by authority when we read the morning newspaper or a good book, because we don't have the time to research the issues, and we trust the source based on past history.

I'm not suggesting that we distrust everything we read or hear unless we've proven it ourselves or read its primary source; for one thing, we don't have the time, and, for another, we may lack the skill in certain fields. I am suggesting we be honest with ourselves about how we know things, and we be clear in that when we tell others.

How does that relate to business? When someone tells you something, be inquisitive (or perhaps even skeptical). Ask questions. If people give you detailed numbers and graphs, be sure you know what they mean and where they came from, at least if you're going to use them to make decisions. That may require triangulation: assessing the same situation from various viewpoints and perspectives, as well as perhaps seeking out original data (the primary source), to see if you get the same answer multiple ways.

If, at the end of the day (or minute), you're going to make your decision based on intuition, that may be fine. Just be sure that you know something about the data you're using to inform your intuition.

And when you're providing information to others, be able to give them the same insights you'd ask of them, if they were giving you information.




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