What do We Really Know?

There was an article in The New Yorker last December called The Truth Wears Off by Jonah Lehrer  that rocked my world. I am working on a Masters in The Neuroscience of Leadership so I know just enough about research and the scientific method to be dangerous, but I was really enjoying the certainty (now, I know it is more accurate to say the perceived certainty) of it all. The, rather stunning, fundamental premise of the article is that the scientific method may not be quite as objective or irrefutable as previously thought. From the abstract:

“The test of replicability, as it’s known, is the foundation of modern research. It’s a safeguard for the creep of subjectivity. But now all sorts of well-established, multiply confirmed findings have started to look increasingly uncertain. It’s as if our facts are losing their truth. This phenomenon doesn’t yet have an official name, but it’s occurring across a wide range of fields, from psychology to ecology.”

This phenomenon (called The Decline Effect in the article) is making scientists in all sorts of fields very nervous and well it should. For me, it begs a whole host of questions in the area of brain function and neuroscience starting with this: to what extent do we really know the difference between what we think (what is in the imagination, in memory) and what we know (what is in concrete reality)? To what extent does what we wish for, pray for, hope for and plan for affect the manifestation of what we think of as reality? As a coach I work with leaders to create and articulate a compelling vision that will be powerful enough to harness people’s creativity and energy – in essence to build in the imagination the engine that will drive the manifestation into reality something concrete that did not previously exist. Ben Zander in his brilliant work The Art of Possibility talks about the idea that it is all made up. Everything. All of it. The implication of this is that it is up to leaders to literally define and create reality. This New Yorker article certainly makes me wonder if that is really the truth. Lehrer ends his article with the following words, which challenged my desire for certainty:

“The decline effect is troubling because it reminds us how difficult it is to prove anything. We like to pretend that our experiments define the truth for us but that’s often not the case. Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can proved doesn’t mean it’s true. When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe.”

Just when you thought it was safe to trust the scientists! But you can ask yourself the question: What am I choosing to believe? Is it making me the best possible leader?

3 thoughts on “What do We Really Know?

  1. Lynn McTaggert has done some interesting research that suggests what we think shapes our reality. Imagine if everyone thought about one postive thing, and how that could literally CHANGE our world. Reality is a slippery topic. Thanks for the post.

  2. Great post 🙂
    This is one of my favorite studies, largely because it really made me think hard! And it’s from one of the smartest researchers around, Jonathon Schooler (who coined the term the ‘U-Duh effect’ amongst other things.) What this study really says, to me anyway, is the impact of our beliefs themselves may be far greater than anyone was seeing…This year at the Neuroleadership summit we have a whole session inspired by this paper, focused on ‘if beliefs change everything, what beliefs should an organization hold?’ (which will be new research by Carole Dweck). See http://www.neuroleadership.org/summits/2011Summit.shtml

  3. Mad — I love your piece above and it has long been an area of utter fascination for me. A distinction that I have found immensely useful, both for myself and in coaching my clients is this:

    We all have things we think, feel, believe and remember that we hold as truth and as that which defines who we think we are and what “reality” if for us. And most of it is reflexive and unexamined.

    If we can see that what we think, feel, believe and remember is only that, not necessarily the “truth”, just what we think, feel, believe and remember, then there can be an opening to feel safer to look at the uncertain and ambiguous nature of our lives.

    The trap of certainty can be blinding.

    Note: These distinctions arise from the work of linguist and philosopher Dr. Fernando Flores.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s