Give us this day our daily method

Two Steps Forward

I know and care about many people whose closed-mindedness is hurting or killing them. Parents of close friends refuse to change their fat- and sugar-laden diets, even after diagnoses of heart problems or diabetes. Every single smoker I know is aware of how damaging the habit is, but most never quit. Then there are the students who frequently miss deadlines or fail tests, and then fall right back into their habits of procrastination when the next assignment rolls around. All of these people, many of whom I care about, are being hurt because of their closed minds.

This applies on the larger scale as well. Cultural resistance to change hurts us on a species-wide level, as people waste vast amounts of water on their lawns during a time of devastating drought and continue guzzling fossil fuels at the expense of environment and future. There is an answer to all of these problems, and a very basic one at that: We have to use the scientific method.

The scientific method I’m talking about is a simplified version of the classic five steps we learned in middle school, and it’s applicable to all elements of life. It’s a way to see the world as it changes and to change your actions accordingly. Additionally, it only has two steps: Watch, then act.

This method is already in use by some of the world’s most high-powered groups. Almost all successful entrepreneurs utilize a version of it when they decide which products or services to create or invest in. In fact, this practice is so popular that it is spawning its own term: the entrepreneurial method. This method aims to apply a rigorous ethical framework to the field of entrepreneurship in the same way that scientists use logical precepts to test theories. Google makes great strides with the scientific method, using it on a continuous basis to assess where their talents and resources are best utilized. The company attributes its innovations more to old-fashioned trial and error than to sudden flashes of inspiration. This outlook is what pushes executives to publically shut down unsuccessful projects like Health and Desktop, both of which seemed useful and profitable. The company decided that neither would benefit them in the long run and decided to turn their gaze elsewhere. Google thinks of each pulled plug or risky investment not as a shameful defeat but as a nudge in the right direction. This ability to gather and utilize data is what sets Google apart from its competitors, and it will continue to propel it long into a sci-fi future.

This love of logic, however, has also hurt Google. When it started digitizing books, it presented the facts so bluntly that it scared off many authors, who sided with publishers and limited the project’s efficacy. The same fate has come to other science-minded endeavors such as genetic modification and the space industry. A company or organization run by scientists will generally try to portray its actions in the most scientific way possible. Unfortunately, people sometimes don’t respond well to cold facts. Evidence is not the best way to convince others, because we’re much more likely to agree with what supports our pre-existing notions and reject what doesn’t. Companies such as Apple, as well as every successful politician, have made good use of this knowledge. This is also why many people don’t think of this method as useful in their everyday lives. We like information that meshes with the ideas we already hold, so a successful marketer — be it for a product, a person or an idea — will try to find what meshes best. If our public discourse takes on a scientific tone, the messages aimed at us will change to fit, and perhaps we can change the way our global culture sees the world.

The scientific method has advanced humanity for millennia. We still use units of time measured by Sumerian astronomers. Enlightenment naturalists gave us the foundations of our knowledge about human biology, optics and calculus. Modern physicists are pushing the boundaries of human thought at this moment. Every scientist since Descartes has known that if a mode of thought isn’t accurate and productive, it’s time to find a new way to think.

There are places where this way of thinking is prominent. Masdar, an amazing city being built in the United Arab Emirates, aims to create a zero-emissions, zero-waste lifestyle completely different from the high-energy requirements of modern cities. Tesla is helping to overturn the oil industry. On a smaller scale, I and the other vegetarians I know are helping reduce carbon emissions every day.

It’s not always easy to think this way. Our old thoughts are as comfortable as warm beds, and we’d rather curl up for five more minutes of sleep than fling off the blankets and shield our eyes. But the world awaits us outside our bedrooms, and there are so many things we haven’t seen.

Don’t sit still just because sitting is familiar. Take a look at what you do and how you think. The next time somebody suggests something that you would ordinarily refuse, take a moment and watch. You never know how it might help.

Contact Jacob Straus at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @jacob_straus.