Bad Science Threatens HR

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By David Creelman

Consultants have learned that it’s a good idea to say that whatever they are selling is based on neuroscience, is evidence-based, and is proven by the latest research. Since we tend to believe consultants we probably repeat these claims to management. The trouble is that more often than not these claims are pretty weak. We end up paying for solutions that are not based in solid science and undermine our own credibility when the lack of real evidence is exposed.

As professionals, in a profession with roots in the science of psychology, we should be better at distinguishing practices based in real science from empty marketing claims.

Distinguishing good science from bad science is hard
I don’t think people will disagree when I suggest we should learn to distinguish good science from bad science. However, that can be hard to do for three reasons:

  1. We want to believe it’s true. Sometimes we want to believe a consultant’s claim because it offers a magical solution to a problem. If you have back pain and someone says “science shows this technique will cure you”, well you are so eager for any cure that you’ll believe it. Other times the sales person (often a “Dr. Something”) is so charming, convincing and uplifting that you want to believe every word they say.
  1. We don’t really care if it’s true. Sometimes we don’t care if the claims are true; we just want what they are selling. We may be complicit in telling management that the consultant’s service is based on science because we want them to approve the purchase.
  1. We don’t have the resources to check if it’s true. When a consultant makes a claim about neuroscience we could potentially ask what research papers their work is based on, and then review those papers to see how strongly they really do support that claim, but not all organizations have the resources to do that validation.

How to get better at distinguishing good science from bad science
I’m going to give just one tip for identifying bad science because it seems to me to be the most practical approach in everyday business. First find someone in the organization with a serious background in science. This is probably someone with a post-graduate degree in science, but it is more a matter that they have the curiosity and skepticism of a scientist rather than that they have some particular formal training. Next, explicitly ask their “sense” of the likely validity of the consultant’s claim. People with a science background often have pretty good BS detectors; it’s not foolproof but it’s often enough to raise issues that need to be looked into more deeply before you make a purchase.

Note that you have to ask their opinion; it’s not enough to have them in the room. If a science-minded person thinks a consultant’s claims are nonsense, but sees everyone else, including their superiors, are eating it up, then he or she may not be inclined to say anything. In fact, they might well think that their superiors must know best. You have to ask them something like “Rate your confidence in the claims of scientific validity on a scale of 1 to 10.” Having more than one such person increases the chances that hollow claims will be exposed. You might also ask sales professionals the same question; they know how the game works and can be good at spotting BS.

You may eventually need more formal approaches to assessing the validity of science claims such as getting a statistician to check the evidence a consultant presented. That kind of more formal approach is smart for big decisions. However, start with the easier route of simply bringing in someone with science expertise and asking for their impressions.

The bottom line is healthy skepticism
Many consultants who claim their service is based on neuroscience or other research are bending the truth. It doesn’t mean that their products are bad; however, as professionals we should be making a sound assessment of the science claims. Healthy skepticism will lead us towards getting the value out of science that our organizations deserve.

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research. He has written a book about the Uber-ization of work and helps HR professionals build their skills in analytics and evidence-based thinking. You can connect to him on LinkedIn or email him at dcreelman@creelmanresearch.com.

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