In conversation over the week-end at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, American virologist David Baltimore, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1975 for his work on the genetic mechanisms of viruses, commented that over the years (and especially while he was president of CalTech) he had received many manuscripts claiming to have solved some great scientific problem or to have overthrown the existing scientific paradigm to provide some grand theory of everything. Most prominent scientists have drawers full of similar submissions, almost always from people who work alone and outside of the scientific community.
Unfortunately, none of these offerings has done anything remotely close to what was claimed, and Dr. Baltimore offered some fascinating insight into why he thinks that’s so. At its best, he noted, good science is a collaborative, community effort. On the other hand, crackpots work alone.
I suspect that this idea is as true in our business as it is in science generally. Working collaboratively and in community lessens the likelihood that our work will be fraught with the bias to which we are so prone and increases the likelihood that all analysis and any conclusions drawn therefrom will be questioned, checked and tested.
Of course, in this context “collaborative” must mean that there is a free and uninhibited exchange of ideas, viewpoints and conclusions. It most decidedly is not a bunch of people agreeing vehemently with the boss or those with a seal of approval from the boss. In both the scientific and the investment process, principled, data-driven questioning and even disagreement should not only be tolerated, it needs to be encouraged. Only then can some approximation of truth (or at least reality) be an expected outcome.
As Dr. Baltimore emphasized, “Science is about changing our understanding of something by investigating its behavior.” In this sense, investigating includes analysis, testing, reaching tentative conclusions and then repeating – perhaps again and again. If what we think cannot be substantiated by data, evidence and experience, even after the most rigorous attempts to falsify it, we have no business claiming it to be true or investing as if it were true, no matter how intuitive, elegant or sales-worthy it may be.
Addendum: This post came about out of a wonderful conversation with Tom Brakke, of the outstanding blog, The Research Puzzle, over lunch today. Thanks, Tom.