Bacon and Eggs

Since I’ve recreated my website and my blog, this post isn’t entirely indicative of what my blog is frequently going to feature. But it is one of my favorite posts from my old blog, and I think that the information it presents in regard to research as well as evidence-based business practice is important. So, in an effort to keep a small link from the old to the new, I wanted to include it here.


I had my own cogniphany today, and thought I’d share it. But, before I share it, I’ll have to speak about one of my favorite quotes of all time, because it’s very pertinent.

“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” – Edmund Burke

I think it’s pertinent because of some of the problems we’ve seen in the recent past in regards to issues such as Vioxx and Cold Fusion. Scientific thought is a process that began in the not-to-distant past, after we stopped drilling holes in the heads of patients to release the evil spirits who were making them act in ways perceived as unacceptable.

I learned something today that I’d not previously heard of. I learned about Sir Francis Bacon and the four idols he wrote about that can ruin scientific endeavors. While there is contention about Bacon being the grandfather of scientific thought, I’d posit that he is easily one of the people who first thought about how to properly conduct research in an ethical manner. I’d also go so far as to state that he should be read by anyone aspiring to be a researcher, as well as current researchers, or those who believe in evidence-based business practices to remind them of important concepts.

Bacon outlined these idols in the Novum Organum:

  • Idols of the Tribe (Aphorism XLI)
  • Idols of the Cave (Aphorism XLII)
  • Idols of the Marketplace (Aphorism XLIII)
  • Idols of the Theatre (Aphorism XLIV)

Bacon states that the Idols of the Tribe are those situations where one cannot trust their senses to provide them with an exact answer about an observed condition. That is to say that we shouldn’t observe a condition or situation and assume that we know the answer because of what our eyes (or any other sense) tell us. This could easily be thought to be the precursor to the idea that correlation does not equal causation. If Sir Francis Bacon were to notice a relationship between the increase in ice cream sales and the murder rate in summer, he–unlike his medieval predecessors–would not assume that ice cream causes people to murder one another.

His passage about the Idols of the Cave state that scientific endeavors are damaged greatly by the influence one’s own feelings, experiences, and desires. It tells us that we risk making severe mistakes if we fail to understand our own limits and thoughts. While reading this passage again, I’m struck by how much his words remind me of the idea of experimenter bias and the danger to scientific research, when one forgets to remain outside of his/her study. I’m also curious about whether or not Dr. Zimbardo was acquainted with Bacon’s writings.

While I was attending class on 17th century prose in the Spring of 2006, it was pointed out to me that Bacon’s passages about the Idols of the Marketplace was based around his ideal language. Apparently, Sir Francis was of the mind that we should return to a point in language where each word had a single meaning, instead of a confusing place where the sound of “pear” could mean a fruit, a couple, or to cut something into thin slices. Bacon’s ideas were based strongly within language and specifically around getting back to an “Adamic” language, or that perfect language spoken by God’s first living creation. However, if one looks for a more scientific basis of his/her ideas, we could easily look at the idea of using very specific language and jargon to describe research outcomes and processes in journals. Because, in this case, how could one mistake the cerebral cortex for a fruit?

His last class of idol is the Theatre, and its description points to the dangers of becoming complacent and simply accepting what we’re told. He speaks of previous breakthroughs and how such things can have a dogmatic effect on those who come after them, leading to what can only be described as the failure to remain skeptical of discoveries. The bulk of this passage could be say much the same as our own ideas about the need for a study to be able to be replicated, in order to prove that a finding is not a fluke of luck or random chance.

While I think more deeply on these ideas, I have to consider whether Sir Francis Bacon truly was one of the first to think in this manner, or by my reading this much into his words, wonder if I am creating a chicken and egg argument about his logic. While it is entirely possible that I am creating far too much from the words of a man thinking in the seventeenth century, I take the position that he was on the same track as many of our present-day scientists in questioning the wisdom of accepting far too much as fact. Even though he may not be the grandfather of scientific thought, I will hold my ground on my belief that those wishing to work in the field of science would do well to read his works and remember the spirit of his words and ideals.

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