Thinking Like a Scientist: The Path of Growth and Improvement

When we typically think of science, we immediately bring up images of high school science: chemistry, physics, and biology. We are conditioned to think of science in a very basic manner – it’s just another subject that we used to study.

But science is more than physics formulas or chemistry experiments. It’s a way of thinking and understanding the world. Think of science as more of a “process”, and less of a “thing”. It’s a way of thinking, observation, and learning. It’s not memorizing a collection of facts. People rarely understand the power of the scientific method and the advantages it delivers in not only understanding the world, but improving yourself. The scientific method allows us to make educated guesses about the world and then design ways to test if those guesses are correct. If they are correct, we’ve succeeded in understanding a little bit more about our world. If they are not, we’ve still succeeded in understanding how the world doesn’t work, which allows us to update our knowledge, broaden our thinking, and build new guesses to test.

This article explores how scientific thinking can improve our lives. Scientific thinking is the best way to distinguish what is true from what is false. Of course, science isn’t perfect, but it’s the best we’ve got. If you don’t believe in scientific thinking, what do you believe in? Hunches? Other people’s opinions? Astrology? Fate? Luck? Science isn’t foolproof, but it certainly beats all the other strategies.

Scientific thinking is a choice we make. Only you can decide how you will operate in this world. No one else will do it for you. Those who rely on outside opinions and ideas are at the mercy of being fooled and misled. Rarely do others have your best interests in mind. Scientific thinking creates control over an uncertain and complex world. Instead of giving up and accepting whatever life delivers us, we can learn about the world, evolve our thought processes, make better decisions, and eventually improve our life.

Scientific thinking is an attitude. It’s a set of principles. It’s a way of living. It’s not a fact to be memorized. It’s not a strict recipe. The following are a few principles that will help you view the world with a scientific mindset.

Principle #1: Think in terms of randomized, controlled trials

In medicine, randomized controlled trials are used to test the effectiveness and safety of new therapies. For example, a new drug is tested by splitting a group of patients into two groups. The control group, which doesn’t receive the drug, and the experimental group, which does receive the drug. The patients are randomly divided among the two groups to minimize the effect of any bias of how the groups are selected.

The goal is to isolate any changes attributable to the drug, and nothing else. The control group is used as a baseline to determine the changes the drug had in the experimental group. If you can’t compare to a control group, it’s tougher to understand the real effect of the drug.

The idea of a randomized controlled trial is a useful principle that can be applied to your life. When you are debating making a significant life change, how do you judge your success? How would you know if your change is paying off?

If you are considering whether a new change is worthwhile, build your own controlled trial as a way to track and measure your success.

For example, many people struggle to diet and lose weight. There’s an endless search for new diets, fads, and supplements that promise success. So you can continue your cycle of constantly searching for the next best thing, or you can start to think scientifically and find out for yourself what really works.

But how can you test if a new diet is successful? The best way is to think in terms of a controlled trial. Assuming your current health has been stable, take that as the control (the baseline). For the next three to six months, make one change (the diet) and nothing else. The diet is what will be tested and measured to determine its effectiveness.

Refrain from changing anything else. Don’t try to quit smoking or take up some new physical activity, as these will interfere with the feedback during the experiment. Obviously, both of those are normally good things to do, just wait until you are done with the trial. We really want to isolate the effectiveness of the new diet. The stricter you isolate and track your diet, the better your knowledge.

After three to six months, you’ll have good evidence if your new change is working. It might be a combination of weight loss, lower BMI, feeling better, clothes fitting better, etc. But at a minimum, you will have tangible, verified evidence of whether your diet is working or not. You no longer have to guess or assume. The beauty of scientific thinking is it takes an unknown question and sets up a method to test it. It removes the guesswork and assumptions that many people rely on to make these decisions.

Remember, the steps are straightforward:

1.      Decide what you want to trial

2.      Create a time window to trial

3.      During the trial, avoid making other changes

4.      Evaluate the trial

5.      Use the trial feedback to adjust your behavior

The more controlled experiments in your life, the more you will realize how much of what you have been doing has not been tested or challenged. You’ve either operated on autopilot or relied too much on the opinions of other people. Stop theorizing and start testing.

Principle #2: Think curiously and critically

Operate in this world with a curious state of mind. Question why things work a certain way. Enjoy the process of figuring things out. Enjoy learning just for the sake of learning. The more you observe what is happening around you, the better questions you will ask, and the better insights you will uncover. This leads to better lives. Curiosity discovers those ideas that others have neglected. It might be a better way to do a task, a new business to start, or a different way to solve a problem. It adds novelty to our life to imagine the ideas we can create.

Once your curiosity has delivered an interesting idea, think about the evidence and understanding behind it. What’s your process for judging the validity of the idea? To think scientifically, think critically. Don’t be lazy and simply accept something as a fact in your mind. The more we trust unfiltered and unexamined ideas, the more likely we are to be corrupted and sidelined by silly ideas.

Principle #3: Think statistically

People are naturally bad at statistics. Even those with a statistics background have trouble integrating these concepts in the real world. But accurately understanding the world requires us to know how to understand the designs, flaws, and outcomes of certain claims or propositions. You don’t need a degree in stats to improve your judgement. A few key ideas are all you need. Here’s a few:

1.      Understand sample sizes and avoid relying on stories

People love stories. Stories are designed to satisfy our need to make sense of this world. However, stories often lack evidence and analytical rigor, regardless of how compelling it sounds. It’s up to you to figure out when these stories mislead.

One powerful statistical lesson to remember is that you generally need many observations of some claim to know whether its true or not. For example, to figure out if a drug “works” you can’t rely on one person getting better. It’s likely some other random cause or a statistical fluke. But if 10,000 people are helped, then you know it’s a good bet. This is the Law of Large Numbers. The idea is to have a lot more trust in ideas that are backed by hundreds or thousands of observations, not just one. Most stories revolve around one observation. It doesn’t guarantee the story is wrong, but you just don’t know enough to make an accurate judgment. So suspend any decision until you gather more evidence.

2.      Think in terms of confidence intervals

We like to think this world is completely knowable, but it’s a false sense of precision. You can see this effect when we have an estimate of something - let’s say, our expectation for next year’s stock market return. We think in terms of one estimate – an estimated 6% return for example. We then base all our analysis and planning off that one estimate.

Unfortunately, estimates like these are usually way off. In statistics jargon, they have a large margin of error. However, you often ignore this margin of error because it’s convenient to assume and trust the one estimate.

A better way is to think in terms of a confidence interval or range. A confidence interval gives a range for our value, instead of just a single point estimate. Thinking in terms of confidence intervals broadens our thought process to imagine scenarios we wouldn’t normally consider.

What’s our worst-case estimate and how would we handle it if it occurred? What’s our upside estimate and what are the conditions that might deliver that result? Confidence intervals make us think about multiple possibilities, not just our favored, default choice. At best, it makes us think of different possibilities and shows us if we need to do more work to understand alternate possibilities. At worst, it prepares us for the inevitable fact that we will be wrong. This is especially useful when others are making predictions and expect us to trust them. Simply ask them to express their estimate in terms of a confidence interval. If they can’t, there’s a good chance they haven’t done the work to have an opinion.