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Why don’t we need the whole truth?

22 July 2019

7 minutes read

Rob 2

Photo: Rob Briner

By trying to categorise everything as either true or false, particularly in complex situations, we are going to make a lot of mistakes. For each of us and society more widely, this way of thinking has a polarising effect, Rob Briner writes. 

I now believe that the pursuit of absolute truth, definite proof and certainty may actually prevent us from making effective use of evidence in our practice. But how? Doesn’t it make sense to find what is known to be true, been proved and is certain in order to make more-informed decisions? Probably not.

I’ve come to this view slowly and after spending years talking with a range of professionals including managers, organisational psychologists and HR professionals about how they can more effectively incorporate evidence into their work. The principles I try to teach are those of Evidence Based Practice (EBP) - a technique designed to help practitioners find and use better-quality evidence from multiple sources to help identify problems or potential opportunities and likely solutions or interventions.

We all have a tendency, as human beings dealing with the world, to want to make clear distinctions between things that are true and things that are false. Or practices that work and practices that are ineffective. Or scientific claims that are proven and those that have been completely discounted.

This desire for certainty leads to real problems when we try to use EBP...It’s not the problem it first seemed.

Making mistakes

This tendency or indeed bias would be fine if the world worked like that. Yes, at extremes, there probably are things that seem close to the truth or established beyond reasonable doubt and things that are pretty much total nonsense.  But in the middle there’s a huge chunk of stuff that’s neither completely true nor wholly false. By trying to categorise everything in this way, particularly in complex situations, we are going to make a lot of mistakes.

This desire for certainty leads to real problems when we try to use EBP and dig deeper into evidence. What typically happens is that the presenting problem (or opportunity) turns out to be something else: It’s not the problem it first seemed.

Similarly, on closer inspection of the evidence, the solution we’d initially identified doesn’t seem so useful and may come with costs that we hadn’t considered.

Some who try EBP seem to happily accept and feel invigorated by the complexity and uncertainty involved. Others, probably the vast majority, find it disappointing. For these practitioners, EBP has not helped them feel they have a better understanding of what’s actually going on and what they can do about it. Instead, they feel bemused and frustrated.

It all comes down to expectations. If we believe that things are often complicated and our knowledge is always incomplete then the EBP approach is helpful and satisfying. If we believe that absolute truth and definite proof can and must be established by looking at all the ‘facts’ then this approach feels rather pointless.

It encourages over-simplification and a distancing from rather than involvement with evidence.

Not some pedantic debate

What do we mean by proof and truth? Absolute proof is something you only find in contexts such algebra or formal logic. Evidence or data do not establish proof. What they do is provide indications that something is more or less likely be the case. Even when it comes to science, which some regard as the only means of proving things, what we actually establish is always provisional and partial. A well-conducted and widely-replicated experiment does not provide absolute truth. Future studies may get different results. It may turn out that the methods used were unreliable and so the findings not to be trusted.

This is not just some pedantic debate. It has real world consequences. I was trained as a researcher and socialised into thinking that science and data are all about the truth and proving things. I was implicitly led to believe that we can establish with strong certainty whether claims are right or wrong through examining existing evidence or collecting new data.

For each of us and society more widely, this way of thinking has a polarising effect. It encourages over-simplification and a distancing from rather than involvement with evidence.

We make the most effective use of evidence when we are critical, ask questions, have doubts and think in terms of probabilities and likelihoods not absolute truths. What does that look like in practice?

Well, instead of saying with great confidence and little evidence something like “this is definitely the problem and this solution will work”, someone trying to be evidence-based would sound rather different.  They would say something like, “given the quantity and quality of evidence we have available there appear to be several issues here with multiple possible solutions and, on balance, this seems the most likely problem and most likely solution”.  And they would share the evidence they were using.

In the end, this is simply a plea for nuance. “It depends” is usually the right answer to every important question. And it’s then up to us to work out, as best we can and always with limited and partial evidence, what it’s most likely to depend on and then take a decision about what to do.

Rob Briner | Professor of Organizational Psychology | School of Business and Management | Queen Mary University of London

Scientific Director | Center for Evidence-Based Management (www.cebma.org)

Twitter @Rob_Briner

Email r.briner@qmul.ac.uk

For a recent summary of the basic principles of EBP see https://www.cebma.org/wp-content/uploads/Briner-The-Basics-of-Evidence-Based-Practice.pdf

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Updated:   5 August 2019 / Responsible Officer:  CBE Communications and Outreach / Page Contact:  College Web Team