Science as a Model for Leadership

scienceIn 2008, the Middle East was suffering the impact of almost ten years of devastating drought. The water line in the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s largest source of freshwater, plunged desperately close to the Black Line at which irreversible salt infiltration would contaminate the lake. Water restrictions resulted in the loss of a year’s crops for many Israeli farmers. In Syria, wells were drilled ever deeper, until they ran dry, and people were driven off the land into the slums expanding around Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs, aggravating the socio-political crises.

Less than a decade later, Scientific American could report that science had enabled Israel to achieve a freshwater surplus through conservation, reclamation, and desalination. The latter expedient provided the real breakthrough. One of the big problems with desalination has been microorganisms clogging the membrane pores through which the seawater is forced, necessitating an expensive chemical process to clear the blockages. Israel’s Zuckerberg Institute pioneered a chemical-free process with porous lava stone shielding the membranes from the microorganisms. Desalination now supplies 55 percent of Israel’s domestic water, providing a beacon of real hope in the troubled region, and a world anxious about freshwater reserves.

This story of enlightened aspiration and achievement seems to me to exemplify the meaning and purpose of leadership, reinforcing a long-held belief that science provides an insightful model for leaders. Many of the scientists I have worked with, some quite eminent, have played a significant part in inspiring this impression.

There were, however, some apparent contradictions to resolve. These related primarily to the understanding of the putatively related concepts of leadership and science. The leadership side of the equation seemed relatively straightforward, given my long-held commitment to the understanding of leadership as inspiring people to be the best they can be in working together for the good of all. The science side of the equation was inevitably more complicated.

And so I set myself the following conundrum to resolve: Is a snollygoster i.e. a person who possesses intellectual prowess but no sound moral principles, inherently incapable of being either a leader or a scientist? An affirmative answer would suggest that science is indeed an appropriate model for leadership. Of course, cynics will scoff at the idea of science as an ethical enterprise, but they are begging the question; the relationship between science and morality is precisely the issue to be decided.

“From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that we are here for the sake of each other…Many times a day I realize how much my own outer and inner life is built upon the labors of my fellow men, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received.”

~Albert Einstein

The word science, in everyday usage, has at least four different meanings: it can mean the intellectual enterprise that seeks a rational comprehension of the natural world; it can stand for the corpus of currently accepted substantive scientific knowledge; it can refer to the international community of scientists, with its ethos and socio-economic structures; and, finally, it can signify the efforts and achievements of applied science and technology. I want to focus on the first of those meanings.

Science is the rational investigation of natural reality through the rigorous application of the empirical method of observation, testing, replication, and verification. The purpose of science is accurate knowledge of objective reality, or in other words, truth. Although science is fallible, it is an astonishingly successful method of acquiring knowledge of the natural world, even if approximate and incomplete, and therefore falsifiable. As physicist/mathematician, Alan Sokal, points out, “well-tested theories in the mature sciences are supported in general by a powerful web of interlocking evidence coming from a variety of sources…the progress of science tends to link these theories into a unified framework.”

Physics is held up as the supreme example of modern science in action, employing the empiriometric method i.e. experiment and mathematical expression. Max Planck, the great theoretical physicist, put it in a nutshell: “An experiment is a question which science poses to Nature, and a measurement is the recording of Nature’s answer.” So scientific method abstracts quantitative reality, i.e. matter, from reality as a whole, limiting its scope of inquiry.

If we apply Aristotle’s Four Causes analysis to this definition, the results would be as follows:

  • The Formal Cause of science, in simple terms its meaning, would be the rational investigation of material reality by empiriometric method.
  • The Material Cause of science would be material reality i.e. matter, its potential, and the regularities or laws that govern it.
  • The Efficient Cause of science would be the scientists who apply the empiriometric method in their quest to understand and manipulate material reality.
  • The Final Cause of science, in simple terms its purpose, would be the progressive expansion of knowledge about material reality i.e. the truth about the world of matter.

Now it is the ongoing controversy concerning the Final Cause that impacts the argument about science as a model for leadership, but there are also conflicting views regarding the other three causes that should be mentioned in passing.

There is currently a heated debate over the proposal by some scientists that if a theory is sufficiently elegant and explanatory, there should be no need for it to be tested experimentally. This, of course, would be a violation of the original premise of the Scientific Revolution that defined scientific knowledge as empirical. Physicist Lee Smolin and philosopher Roberto Unger, co-authors of “The Singular Universe and The Reality of Time,” expressed their concerns about what some researchers openly refer to as a crisis in physics: “Science is corrupted when it abandons the discipline of empirical validation or dis-confirmation. It is also weakened when it mistakes its assumptions for facts and its ready-made philosophy for the way things are.”

Another ongoing dispute concerns the unscientific claim, swallowed by vast swathes of the general public, to the effect that science is the only source of real knowledge. Related to this self-refuting argument is the curiously widespread belief that matter constitutes the whole of reality. Skipping lightly over the fact that abstract concepts, numbers, and propositions are neither matter nor energy, the forthright views of leading physicists help expose the folly of these incoherent claims.

The esteemed physicist, George F. R. Ellis, who co-authored the classic text, The Large-Scale Structure of Space-Time, with Stephen Hawking, is critical of those who burden real science with unrealistic claims: “The belief that all of reality can be fully comprehended in terms of physics and the equations of physics is a fantasy. As pointed out so well by Eddington in his Gifford lectures, they are partial and incomplete representations of physical, biological, psychological, and social reality.”

Many physicists acknowledge that both matter and mind remain intractable mysteries, and that they don’t even know what the connections between those mysteries might be. As Adam Frank, professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester, explains: “…after more than a century of profound explorations into the subatomic world, our best theory for how matter behaves still tells us very little about what matter is. Materialists appeal to physics to explain the mind, but in modern physics the particles that make up a brain remain, in many ways, as mysterious as consciousness itself.”

Nobel Laureate, Steven Weinberg, is candid about science’s limitations: “I’m not as sure as I once was about the future of quantum mechanics. It is a bad sign that those physicists today who are most comfortable with quantum mechanics do not agree with one another about what it all means.”

Stephen Hawking, in A Brief History of Time, also acknowledged the natural limits of science: “Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe.”

Many people today wrongly believe that once science has “spoken” on a matter of public policy, allegedly non-scientific sources of knowledge and wisdom like history, metaphysics, ethics, law, and theology must dutifully bow the knee and remain silent. This is absurd for two reasons: first, it ignores science’s self-imposed limits, and second, while the knowledge of material reality provided by science is essential to guide public policy, it can never decide the moral issues involved. The final decision on policy is always a moral challenge – will this be good for people, or bad?

Should automation be applied regardless of the unemployment that would result? Should a company be allowed to collect genetic data on employees? Should research on human-animal chimeras be allowed? Should we limit the government’s powers of surveillance? Should we increase government funding for research and development? Should nuclear weapons be banned? These are simply not scientific questions. Science gives us knowledge, but not wisdom.

As important as these issues are, the controversy concerning the purpose of science remains the prime focus of this essay, and in fact, subsumes the debates already touched on. The future of science, and indeed of humanity, will be decided by this centuries-old controversy about the essential purpose of science. The two main responses are not scientific because science cannot say what its essential purpose is. It is scientists and philosophers who must decide – and their judgments are necessarily based on metaphysical reasoning, not scientific method. Ominously, the stances they take inevitably determine the course and conduct of science.

First, there is the utilitarian response of the pioneers of the Scientific Revolution, which was driven not just by the quest for knowledge for its own sake, but by a practical, socio-political motive. Descartes made it plain: modern science would make humankind “masters and possessors of nature,” increasing “human utility and power” by means of technology. Achieving this clearly expressed vision meant focusing on those aspects of reality amenable to precise prediction and control, which required adopting the quantitative method. Though some scientists today may deny it, science continues, in large part, to be motivated by the moral vision of Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes to free humankind from disease, scarcity, and drudgery, and to enable humans to control and exploit the natural world.

Secondly, there is the view that science’s purpose is the incremental expansion of knowledge about the cosmos and humanity. In other words, the purpose of science is to discover truth. And since the truth about humanity and the world is not confined to material reality, many prominent scientists have agreed that scientific knowledge must be complemented by knowledge acquired through other disciplines. As Einstein said, “Science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be, and outside of its domain value judgments of all kinds remain necessary.”

The importance of making the right choice between these two views cannot be overstated, and we must be guided both by science’s triumphs and tragedies. Science transforms the world with new materials, medicines, and machines. It drives economic growth, and ground-breaking research and new technologies typically generate start-up enterprises. Leading Infotech and biotech industries have blossomed as a result of the pioneering work done in and around research universities, and a global science leader like MIT can claim to have contributed to the birth of more than 30,000 companies employing some 4.6 million people.

The blue-sky research now under threat from funding pressures and blinkered commercial agendas has in its own idiosyncratic fashion produced immense and unexpected benefits for humankind. Penicillin and laser beams are obvious examples, but there are many others. Superconductivity, a quantum mechanical phenomenon discovered in 1911, showed that cooling certain materials to ultra-low temperatures enabled them to conduct electricity without resistance, allowing large electric currents to flow without a power source. This led to the development of the powerful magnets that make possible technologies like high-speed trains that levitate through magnetic fields and fMRI brain scanners.

The benefits of science are staggering, but the downside cannot be ignored. Science today faces a very serious ethical crisis. Devastating weaponry, misguided priorities, dishonest claims, inhumane medical experiments, dangerous drugs, collusion with questionable corporate, political, and military schemes, ideological contamination, the erosion of professional standards, and other aberrations, undermine the image of science. The damage done goes beyond the immediate suffering because tarnishing the image of science is a death-blow to civilization itself.

Widely-respected science journalist, John Horgan, says, “In ‘The End of Science,’ I predicted that scientists, as they struggle to overcome their limitations, would become increasingly desperate and prone to hyperbole. This trend has become more severe and widespread than I anticipated. In my 30-plus years of covering science, the gap between the ideal of science and its messy, all-too-human reality has never been greater than it is today.”

The ideal of science that Horgan talks about is the quest for truth, while the messy all-too-human reality is the utilitarian attitude so easily perverted by selfish agendas. The issue is as decisive as this: if the purpose of science is seen to be truth, then it will continue to be of immense value, and yes, usefulness. If, conversely, the purpose is seen to be usefulness, then science will be increasingly corrupted by those who define utility in terms of power and money, rather than the good of all people and the planet.

Science itself is not the issue – scientists and their sponsors are. Science doesn’t promote self-serving personal agendas because science is not a person. It is a method of inquiry, invented by humans to find the truth about reality. When scientists depart from that ideal it inevitably becomes corrupted, and capable of terrible, even cataclysmic harm.

The moral collapse of the modern West is a devastating threat to both science and leadership. However, it is a reassuring fact that most of the ethical failures within the scientific community are exposed by scientists who have maintained their moral compass, and who understand that science is about humanity, and that it will only flourish when it is practiced with the virtues essential to it.

The reality is that just as snollygosters make misleaders rather than leaders, so too do they make science-saboteurs rather than scientists.

Science, properly understood, is indeed a magnificent model for leadership. Einstein saw the most incomprehensible thing about the cosmos as being the fact that it is comprehensible by humans, whose very purpose seems to be to seek truth and to live a life of virtue according to its precepts. Science, like leadership, is essential to the fulfillment of true human potential. As a professor of physics Robbert Dijkgraaf rightly notes:

“Society benefits from embracing the scientific culture of accuracy, truth seeking, critical questioning, healthy skepticism, respect for facts and uncertainties, and wonder at the richness of nature and the human spirit.”

Originally published by Bizcatalyst360

Andre van Heerden

Andre van Heerden

Andre van Heerden heads the corporate leadership program The Power of Integrity, and is the author of three books on leadership: Leaders and Misleaders, An Educational Bridge for Leaders, and Leading Like You Mean It. He has unique qualifications for addressing the leadership crisis. Since studying law at Rhodes University, he has been a history teacher, a deputy headmaster, a soldier, a refugee, an advertising writer, a creative director, an account director on multinational brands, a marketing consultant, and a leadership educator. He has worked in all business categories on blue-chip brands like Toyota, Ford, Jaguar, Canon, American Express, S C Johnson, Kimberley Clark, and John Deere. He leadership coaching has seen him help leaders and aspirant leaders in Real Estate, Retail, the Science Sector, Local Government, Education, Food Safety, Banking, and many other areas.

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