Saturday, 16 May 2009

Bad Science

A good colleague of mine, Robert MacIntosh, has just created a blog for PhD students in management. He's developing it as a resource site for them and has included a number of books that might help those people learn about what consitutes good research. I'm going to suggest he recommends Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, a wonderfully funny and well written book with serious messages on what comprises knowledge in the field of healthcare, nutrition and much of the nonsense that gets acres of press coverage by all branches of the media.

Goldacre, a medical doctor, writer and columnist in the Guardian, has brought together ideas from his website to do a demolition job on popular treatments such as Homeopathy, Brain Gym, much of Nutritional 'Science', Pills that solve social problems such as Omega - 3, etc., and people who promote them, including Gillian McKeith and Professor Sir Robert Winston. He does so from the perspective of a trained experimental scientist, used to applying the rigours of controls, placebos, probablity sampling, etc to the evaluation of research. For the most part, these are not the kinds of rigours that some PhD students in management are used to, nor are they necessarily sympathetic to the positivist assumptions underlying this form of knowledge production - at least in the UK. However, it's probably best that they learn about them, if only to defend their methodologies and methods against those examiners with a scientific disposition - and I've come across a no more amusing nor sharply intelligent way of doing so than by dipping into this book.

Reading it has helped me understand where my class of surgeons, physicians and dentists are coming from when they looked at us with some astonishment when introducing them to the 'rigours' of action research in clinical leadership. It's a world away from their world, though as the author frequently mentions, what is often the most interesting aspects of the findings are the complex social issues that often have the greatest impact on treatments.

The book has also taking me down another path to explore the metaphor of 'leadership as placebo'. This is not a new idea: it was first 'discovered' nearly a century ago during the Hawthorne studies when productivity progressively increased during the so-called experimental stages even when benefits given to the girls in the Relay Assembly Test Room were removed (at least that's the myth). Mayo, the father of Organizational Behaviour at Harvard, explained these findings in terms of the bad science of the Hawthorne effect, sympathetic leadership and the development of 'appropriate norms' rather than the treatment (increased lighting, rest breaks, etc) - itself an explanation that was based on bad science. Nevertheless, placebos in the form of sugary coated pills (read leadership) can produce some extraordinary effects because people want to believe in their efficacy, as Goldacre points out in a stunning set of findings by Braithwaite and Cooper in 1981 on research into headaches. 835 women were given either aspirin or placebo pills, packed in either bland boxes or flashy, brand name packaging. They found that aspirin did have a positive effect on treating headaches, but more than that they found the packaging enhanced both the effects of the aspirin and placebo pills.

Just like some nutritional and pharmacological treatments, the evidence on leader impact on performance isn't strong, yet the belief in leaders is high, especially when they come well packaged and branded. Goldacre argues his medical case in the context of the highly dubious claims that fish-oil pills improve childrens intelligence, which are accorded no support by good science. Yet belief in these pills is widespread and the main reason for this state of affairs lies not just with the hucksters and snake oil salesman but with the media in the form of the news values of journalists and how stories are pushed. What is also evident is the invention by pill salesmen and some unethical pharmaceutical companies of new diseases because they cannot find new treatments for the diseases we already have. A parallel exists in the business field, because power lies in the ability of leaders, according to the leader-centric explanations of business performance, not because the facts support this explanation but because of the media's need for celebrity and their search for heros (and more recently villains). And because some leaders become almost deified by the business and popular media, they are encouraged to search for new problems (or diseases) to solve, often in contexts for which they have no previous nor relevant experiences. Such is the case with the system of pantouflage in France, whereby public sector leaders can easily transfer to positions in the private sector because of who they are, not what they know. It also occurs in the reverse direction in Anglo-Saxon countries such as the USA and UK. Leadership as craft it seems is not important, where leaders learn to lead with followers; instead it is the art of leaders and their charisma that dominates popular imagination and the expectations of many followers.

It is just such an unhealthy view that has led to the problems we currently face in many of our companies. Am I onto something here with this metaphor, and can our PhD students learn more from reading serious 'airport books' like this one on medical research than some of the material we pass off as knowledge about management?

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