What causes some people to be effective at what they do while others are ineffective?

This is a question that many have tried to address, while a few have hinted at the answer. The two best examples came from the physicists Richard Feynman and Eli Goldratt.

In the 1974 Caltech commencement address, Richard Feynman spent the entire speech telling us the hint. He described it as a problem without spelling out the solution. He explained how the scientific approach evolved and he explained what the old approach was; I’ll call it ‘the witch doctor approach’. He said that despite the fact that we’re in the scientific era -- where we’ve advanced dramatically in science and technology -- most people do not think scientifically. He complained that whole fields of study are not even trying to do the basic things necessary to have scientific integrity. He explained that these anti-scientific ways are even encroaching into the field of physics -- the field that is easiest to be objective -- the field where the best intellectual traditions were developed. He lamented that we don’t teach the scientific approach in schools and instead that professors are, in effect, hoping that people learn it by osmosis, meaning teaching by example. And this is the hint to the solution. The solution is to directly teach the principles and methods of the scientific approach instead of relying only on teaching by example.

In the Goldratt Satellite Program (GSP), the physicist and business management guru Eli Goldratt complained that his attempts to teach the world how to think had failed. His Theory of Constraints (TOC) had dramatically improved thousands of major corporations worldwide, even government institutions, but he recognized that the vast majority of them had returned to their old ways. He complained that the body of knowledge of TOC is so big and complex that it’s too difficult for people to learn it well. He said that it’s a problem of organization; that the knowledge of TOC is not organized well enough. So this is a hint to the solution. The solution is to learn the principles and methods of the scientific approach so that TOC ideas are fully and clearly organized into one harmonious whole. This is the only way to really learn TOC, to actually integrate the knowledge into the minds of the people running the companies. Because what’s the alternative? The alternative is to do what the vast majority of schools effectively encourage you to do, to learn by rote -- to learn just enough to pass the test but not enough to be able to apply the theories to new situations that were not encountered on the tests or the homework provided by the teachers.

Both of these giants had the same idea. We’ve got to learn how to treat theories in general. The shortcut method doesn’t work. You can’t just learn some practical applications of a theory for your current context. That’s not how life works. If you succeed at all it’ll be by luck, not smarts. If you don’t learn how to treat theories in general, then you have no way of knowing that a particular theory will work for your current situation, nor whether that theory will work for when your situation changes. That’s what the scientific approach is about. It provides the principles and methods for how to judge whether a theory is any good, for how to determine if your situation falls within the scope of a theory, for how to determine the practical applications of a theory given a particular situation, and more. In summary, the scientific approach provides the principles and methods for how to connect our theories to reality and to continually evolve our theories so that the gap between our theories and reality keeps getting smaller and smaller over time.

The History Of The Scientific Approach

The scientific approach is something that itself has evolved over a long time. One crowning moment in history that defined an early version of the scientific approach is the tradition of criticism. It was the Ancient Greeks who created this tradition approximately 2,500 years ago after centuries of advancement. Prior to the tradition of criticism, the standard education involved an expectation that students were supposed to exactly copy their teachers’ ideas. This meant that students were judged by how closely they parroted their teachers. But with the tradition of criticism came a new way of educating people. This new style of education involved an expectation that students would sometimes make improvements to their teachers’ ideas. Those improvements were expressed as criticisms of the teacher’s ideas. And it was praised by the teachers. This new perspective sees disagreement and criticism as good things because they’re a necessary component for progress to occur.

After the Ancient Greek civilization ended there was a long period of little advancement. The tradition of criticism no longer had a stronghold anywhere in the world. But then came a rebirth of the tradition of criticism, an era that we now call the Renaissance (Latin for rebirth). People started to really advance the scientific approach and actually define it explicitly. The biggest giant of that era was the physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton. He was the first to define the world as a system of parts and to define the logic of various types of systems. He explained that as the number of interdependencies that exist between the parts of a system increases, the number of parts that govern the whole system decreases. This means that with enough interdependencies in a system, the number of parts that govern the whole system reduces to exactly one. This has relevance to the business world because organizations have a lot of interdependencies between the parts that makeup the organizations. And the one part that governs the whole system is what Eli Goldratt calls “the constraint”. In chemistry we call this “the limiting factor”. Eli Goldratt also used the terms “bottleneck” and “critical path” for special types of interdependent systems.

Later physicists built on Newton’s work, like Lagrange, Karl Popper[1], David Deutsch, and Eli Goldratt, just to name a few of the most important contributors. And these intellectual traditions were passed down by in-person discussion from physics teacher to physics student, spanning a few centuries. This was a first in human history and it’s still going on today. Much of what I know of the scientific approach was passed down to me at the Physics Department of Bradley University.

Throughout this period, these intellectual traditions leaked into other areas of human endeavor. Medicine, psychology, agriculture, economics, politics, parenting and education, and just about everything else, including the business world, and I mean every major industry and every area of business within those industries, including interpersonal and intrapersonal relations.

[1] Karl Popper was not technically a physicist. He was a “philosopher of science”, but it’s the same as being a physicist for all practical purposes. He had many in-person discussions about scientific theories with many scientists including Albert Einstein. His aim was to figure out the difference between science and pseudoscience.

How The Scientific Approach Applies To Everything

The Industrial Age was a direct result of scientific thinking leaking into the business world. Henry Ford applied scientific thinking to his company, Ford Motor Company, and in doing so he created one of the earliest theories about how to successfully operate a company. These theories were improved upon by a series of later contributors to create even better theories about how to successfully operate an organization. TQM, JIT, LEAN, Six Sigma, Kaizen, and TOC, are all special case versions of the more general thing, the scientific approach. The latest major contribution came from the physicist and business management guru Eli Goldratt. He studied the theories of earlier physicists and those of earlier business gurus. Eli Goldratt represents one of many crossover events in which the intellectual traditions developed in the field of physics permeated into other fields.

All of these special case methods mentioned above are about continually improving our businesses using feedback loops designed to continually close the gap between our business models and reality. And they all incorporate the concept that no one individual should be in control of the decision-making. Instead it’s the methods that are in control. The best leaders are the ones that have no interest in dictating the decisions of their teams. Instead they want decisions to be made based on the outcome of a decision-making process performed by more than one person. In a disagreement, good leaders don’t side with any particular team member. Instead they try to side with the best idea, regardless of which team member happens to be the initial advocate of that idea. This is the same as how scientists operate; a scientist does not adopt a scientific theory just because other scientists did. Instead, every scientist uses his independent judgement. 

Eli Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints (TOC) had a huge effect on the business world. As of 1999, over 5,000 large companies worldwide had performed a TOC implementation in at least one department, and 100 of these companies did a full TOC implementation companywide, all departments, all business units. These companies had direct help from Eli Goldratt’s team. And I’m sure today there are thousands of small companies implementing TOC on their own, to the extent that they understand it. Goldratt’s books are still selling today.

Despite this dramatic improvement, Eli considered his project a failure. His overarching goal was to teach the world how to think and he said that his work had failed to do that. As I explained above, Eli complained that TOC is not organized well enough for people to learn it effectively. He also explained that the typical company would implement TOC and experience exponential growth for a few years, and then fall back to linear growth, or worse, downsizing or bankruptcy. They apparently don’t understand TOC enough to continue benefiting from its knowledge. One way this fallback occurred is that the people who understood TOC would leave the company due to headbutting with other people in the company who didn’t learn TOC. It’s ironic because TOC includes a set of methods designed to resolve disagreements, to create harmony between people in a company, and more generally between all the parts that makeup a company. But that only works if everybody is on the same page about the necessity for harmony and the methods for how to produce it.

As of 2021, the vast majority of companies worldwide are not run by scientific thinkers. They don’t have the mindset of a scientist. They don’t realize how easy it is to fool ourselves and that we need objective methods to combat this. They don’t think in terms of creating a business model to understand their business. They don’t make business plans with a business model as the background set of “assumptions” that must be true in order for the business plan to be viable. They don’t know how to check those assumptions to look for flaws and correct them. They don’t know how to evolve their business models when they find new information. And they don’t learn from the best thinkers in the fields they’re working in. This is all stuff that a scientist would do, but most business owners and executives don’t know the scientific approach.

The most glaring mistake I see companies making -- and this mistake causes millions of other types of mistakes -- is that they model their business as if their employees are uncreative, unemotional machines, like machines on an assembly line. Their employees are a source of knowledge that management does not have, but companies operate as if this is not the case. An employee’s motivation to work smart and share their valuable knowledge depends on many things, but these companies operate as if motivation should exist by default, unearned. Companies operate as if it’s not their responsibility to help employees understand how the work that they’re being tasked to do is supposed to achieve the company’s goals and their own goals. There must be alignment of interests or else the members of a team will be working at cross purposes, working against each other, destroying value instead of creating it, yet the vast majority of companies have no clue about any of this. They don’t think of their business as a system of parts and they don’t understand that some of the parts are human beings and with that comes certain problems, and with those problems come opportunities; things like what it takes for people to change their minds, learn and grow, what it takes for people to be motivated to do these things, what it takes for people to create mutual respect and harmony, the importance of honesty and transparency, and so much more. 


The scientific approach in parenting / education

It’s hard to blame the business world when the vast majority of schools and parents today are still raising kids using elements of the old way of education that existed before the tradition of criticism. They fail to reward people for asserting their disagreements and contributing their own ideas, and instead they punish them for it. Many kids are still judged by how closely they parrot their parents and teachers. The vast majority of people educated in this sort of environment develop coping mechanisms to deal with this mean behavior. They learn to hide their ideas in order to avoid the pain that comes with the meanness and punishment. They learn that honesty and transparency do not pay off in this world, at least in the part of the world that they experience. And it becomes habitual. Then they grow up to be adults who do the same thing. They become employees who do the same thing in a business context. And most business owners, executives, and managers treat their employees in the same way, punishing honesty and transparency instead of rewarding it, further encouraging the same old ways of thinking and discouraging the new way of thinking.

Despite this widespread ignorance of the scientific approach, some people still manage to figure out a lot of it. And it evolves in each of us, on an individual scale, just like the scientific approach has been evolving on a collective scale. Individual people create general ways of thinking that are compatible with the scientific approach all the time, without ever directly learning the principles and methods of science from anybody. It happens in lots of ways. Some notable ones are learning two languages, being raised with two very different cultures, studying physics at university level, learning computer programming, raising children, and being a business owner-operator. Each of these gives you a bonus, putting you in a position to create general theories of knowledge. The most effective people are the ones that had many of these bonuses. One example of such a person is the great Jerry Seinfeld. In an interview with Tim Ferris, Seinfeld explained [link] that he does scientific experiments in his comedy work. He said that he tries out jokes on the audience and receives their feedback, allowing him to figure out what works and what doesn’t work, and then he goes back to the writing phase to brainstorm edits to his jokes to account for the results of his experiments; and the cycle continues. 

The latest crossover event where the scientific approach leaked into education and parenting comes from David Deutsch. Deutsch learned the scientific approach by example, similar to other physicists, but he also learned it directly from Karl Popper’s work on the scientific approach. Popper discovered that the scientific approach is an evolutionary process that has the same logic as genetic evolution. In genetic evolution, genes replicate from person to person; gene variants are created and passed on, and then the unfit genes are removed from the gene pool. For the scientific approach, we have memes; ideas that replicate from person to person. And by the same logic as genetic evolution, there are meme variants being created and passed on, and then the “unfit” memes are removed from the meme pool because people stop teaching them to the next generation.

Popper taught us that “all life is problem solving.” [All Life is Problem Solving] This means that every action, every thought, every emotion is an intended solution to a problem. In other words, every action, every thought, every emotion has purpose. And this means that we can judge any action, any thought, any emotion, by whether or not it actually solves the problem that it’s intended to solve, by whether or not it actually achieves it's purpose.

Deutsch further clarified that “all problems are soluble” [The Beginning of Infinity], implying that any problem can be solved given the requisite knowledge. And he explained that anybody who can create knowledge can create any knowledge, allowing them to solve any problem. He also clarified the basic point that the only inherent limit we have is that we cannot break the laws of nature - and I mean the actual laws of nature, not the theories we currently have, which are not perfect and will be replaced with more accurate theories in the future. One thing this implies is that if you think a goal is impossible to achieve, you should describe how it specifically breaks the laws of nature as best we understand them today, and if you can’t, then you should not have concluded that that goal is impossible to achieve. It’s a logical contradiction.

Deutsch understood that the scientific approach applies to interpersonal relations, like in a family. So he created a special case of the scientific approach for this context; Common Preference Finding (CPF). This method factors in some basic things about the scientific approach that previous methods do not.

First and foremost, CPF hinges on the principle that we’re fallible, that we could be wrong about any of our ideas. CPF requires that all parties involved have no interest in pressuring people to act against their will. Maybe they’re right or maybe they’re wrong, and either way they should not be forced to act against themselves. If they’re right and you force them to act against themselves, you’re harming them. And if they’re wrong and you force them to act against themselves, you’re harming them still because you’re not allowing them to learn from their mistakes. People need to act on their own ideas otherwise learning and progress are being thwarted.

Second, CPF incorporates the idea that common preferences are always possible and that we’re all capable of finding common preferences. As scientific thinkers, we should always be optimistic that we can find ideas that are good enough to solve our problems.

Third, CPF factors in the basic point that people are different. We don’t all have the same preferences. Two previous methods that don’t get this right are The Golden Rule and The Platinum Rule. The first tells us to treat others as if their preferences are the same as ours; treat others the way you want to be treated. The second tells us to treat others as if our preferences are the same as theirs; treat others the way they want to be treated. Both of these methods don’t give guidance about what to do when there’s a difference of preferences. CPF recognizes this basic point and explains how a group of individuals can go from a difference of initial preferences to an agreement of a common preference. It requires the creation of knowledge. The initial preferences are treated the same as scientific theories are treated. We don’t assume they’re right at the start. Instead we expect to find flaws and we’re always optimistic that we’ll find the solution to the problem -- a common preference. A common preference factors in all the relevant knowledge of all the people involved, and it’s the only way for people to be happy with the result. And all of this applies to one individual too. Each person needs to create agreement between his/her preferences.


The scientific approach in government / politics

The scientific approach permeated into government institutions as well. One fundamentally important example is the concept of “rule of law”, which is the opposite of “rule of man”. Early governments had a king that controlled any aspect of his subjects’ lives that he wanted to, with no checks against his power. A king could do anything, even create any law, and it would be legal, simply because it was the king who did it. The law didn’t apply to the king and only applied to his subjects. This is an extreme version of what we call “rule of man”. Today we recognize this extreme example as a bad thing because the new way is so ingrained in our culture. In the new way, the law rules instead of a person ruling. Hence the phrase “rule of law”. In the 13th century the English people demanded that their king institute the Magna Carta -- a contract between the king and the people, which protected the rights of the people from the arbitrary power of the king. He was no longer to have arbitrary power. People were no longer expected to follow the edicts of a king. Instead we’re expected to adhere to laws that were developed through a process that was designed to be as objective as we know how. And we keep improving that process, meaning that we keep improving its ability to be objective. This follows the same logic as the scientific approach. We don’t care what any particular scientist believes about reality. Instead we judge a theory by it’s content without regard for who invented the theory or who else or how many people have adopted it.

Along the lines of the “rule of law” concept comes the concept of changing rulers peacefully. In the past, the default way to change a ruler was for another person to be able and willing to wage war against the current ruler. Today we see this as a horrible thing. All first-world nations have instituted a peaceful means of changing rulers. Peace is required for people to thrive economically and otherwise. Karl Popper explained in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies [link], in the old way of thinking, people saw the following question as the most important: ‘Who should rule?’ But in the new way of thinking, the most important question is this instead: ‘In case there’s a bad ruler, by what process should they be replaced?’ The point is that the process by which we replace rulers is far more important than what particular ruler we have at any given time. The logic is simple. It’s far more important to be good at correcting mistakes in our ideas than to have good ideas already. Progress matters more than whatever our current state is. This means that if someone is ahead of you (they have a better current state) but you progress faster than them, then you’ll be ahead of them in the long run.

Today, one example of “rule of law” comes from the USA. We are the intellectual descendants of the English people. The US Constitution is an evolved version of the Magna Carta. These documents represent agreements between the people and their government representatives, something that protects the people from the arbitrary power of individuals in governance.

The US constitution outlines three branches of government, each designed to have powers that the others do not have, each designed to check the power of another -- hence the phrase “separation of powers”. And the evolution of all of this is still going strong. Currently there are some lawsuits waiting to be heard by the supreme court that would strengthen the separation between the legislative and executive branches. As prescribed by the US Constitution, the legislative branch is supposed to make laws while the executive branch is supposed to execute them. But sometimes the legislative branch goes beyond its prescribed power by delegating its law-making power to the executive branch -- thereby circumventing the US Constitution. The judicial branch’s attempt to fix this is what is called The Non-Delegation Doctrine. It’s a concept designed to define the line between the legislative branch and the executive branch. One such case waiting to be heard by the US Supreme Court is USVA vs FDA. See my letter to Americans for more on that case and its importance to the integrity of the US legal system.

The “rule of law” concept hinges on a more fundamental concept, fallibility. It’s the idea that we can be wrong about anything, which means that nothing is perfect and there’s always room for improvement. And it means that there’s no way to guarantee being right. That’s why we always need to be vigilant in accounting for the possibility of being wrong by instituting procedures designed to find and fix errors. And it’s also why we need to always be improving these procedures; the procedures themselves are not perfect and so they also always have room for improvement. As our world evolves, we’ll always be presented with new situations that our old laws don’t account for, and so there’s always room for improvement to change our laws to fit our new situations.

The concept of fallibility is ingrained within our judicial branch too. How we treat murder cases is a great example of this. If someone is convicted of murder by a particular jury, that decision can be appealed. The existence of this policy is a clear admission that any particular jury can be wrong -- their judgement is fallible just like the rest of us. We trust in the process, in the system, such that if a jury acted in a biased way, or otherwise got the wrong conclusion, another jury will get it right.

But to be clear, the concept of justice is older than the existence of government. We had the idea of “eye for an eye”, meaning revenge, before any governments existed on Earth. Many people today understand that justice cannot involve revenge, but many do not. Their thoughts and actions expose it. Many people want to see murderers raped in prison. They want revenge. They want punishment. Why are these ideas still replicating from person to person? It’s due to our parenting. Have you ever noticed the following situation? A kid accidentally hits his friend and now the friend is crying. So the first kid says, “hit me so we’re even.” This is the concept of revenge. Notice how there’s no talk about what the mistake was, whether there even was a mistake, and how to do better next time. Wherever these kids learned it from, their parents apparently don’t understand that revenge and punishment are wrong and they don’t know the better way.

The scientific approach in non-profits / philanthropy

The ideas that work well in business also work well in non-profit organizations. Optimism, fallibility, and accurately modeling a business are all things that non-profit organizations need too. The same logic of interdependent systems works equally well for both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Eli Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints explains how to optimize the throughput of an organization, regardless of what that throughput is. For businesses, the intended throughput is profit, while for non-profit organizations, the intended throughput is something else other than profit, like the number of homeless people fed and housed.

One of the elements of the scientific approach is to incorporate the best ideas and tools from all fields into the field that you’re working in. But there isn’t much of this happening in the philanthropy world.

As an example, consider the problem of distribution of food and other basic items to the homeless. The help that homeless people receive from volunteers is so disorganized that it’s not very effective. The volunteers that are directly helping the homeless must get help from others who have money and food to donate, but the logistics of it all is totally lacking. This causes a situation where oftentimes there’s not enough stuff of what’s needed in the right places at the right times, and other times there’s way too much to the point that the perishable items go to waste and the non-perishable items just sit there unused, taking up much needed space that should be used for the needed items. Streamlined distribution would fix this, but that kind of thing currently only happens in the business world. This is a problem of scale and non-profit organizations would be far more effective if they adopted the ideas that businesses use to solve these problems.

As my friend Gavin Palmer explained to me, one way to improve the distribution logistics of charity efforts worldwide is for a company like Amazon to provide it’s distribution technology, or rather a version of it, to the non-profit sector. This would require that some representatives of the non-profit sector work together with Amazon to make it all work, but it would be a huge benefit to the non-profit sector while being a relatively small cost to Amazon.


Want more details about the scientific approach?

I wrote a much more detailed article explaining the scientific approach for a business audience. See that here

Feedback and further error-correction

I recommend that anyone who has questions, criticisms, doubts, suggestions for improvements, or whatever, to contact me so that we may learn from each other, thus improving my knowledge and yours. 

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Regarding the platinum rule where A treats B the way B wants to be treated, where is the interaction with A’s preferences? It seems A’s preferences have no bearing at all here unless I’m missing something.

btw, my ideas on the golden rule, vs platinum rule, vs common preference finding have changed. My newer article explains it differently. See section 10.  

I appreciate the ideas you're sharing here, but I think the way you write this is, honestly, rambling and hard to follow. It feels like a stream of consciousness series of musings rather than a clear and insightful essay, and in particular I 1. found myself skimming a lot and 2. am not sure what you intended to achieve by writing it. What effect did you mean to produce in me? What problem were you solving? The main thing that has changed as a result of my reading this is that I now want to go look up Eli Goldratt on Wikipedia. Which is enough reason for me to have read it... but I feel like you probably wanted more than that.

You're probably right.  Another person told me I could have said the same stuff in half the length.

This article is more on the marketing, not much about the content of the scientific approach. 

I did write another article that goes into the content (linked above under the heading Want more details about the scientific approach?). It's twice as long and it's tuned for a business audience.  I wrote the second article because I presented the first one to TOCICO, the org responsible for improving and spreading TOC, and they asked me to rewrite the article for the TOC audience, in less of a magazine style and more of the style of a scientific paper.

What effect did you mean to produce in me? What problem were you solving?

To want to learn more. Like from the article I wrote for the TOC audience (Eli Goldratt's followers). 

Well, I'm glad to have learned about the Theory of Constraints. Some interesting, potentially very useful concepts in there. So thanks for that.