Strategy, science, and debates

Mike makes some interesting points in his post. I’m not sure if I should debate him on it, because that seems like it would cause an infinite recursion of meta-posts, so I’ll just lay out some areas for clarification:

1. On the live-debate format with audience votes, I don’t think anybody sees those votes as having even straw-poll relevance. “Losing” or “winning” one of these debates in voting terms is inconsequential. It’s just an audience=participation device (not that successful, as far as I can tell) and really doesn’t say anything about the field.

2. As for the “debate” format itself, where people explain their conflicting points of view and try to say why their view seems more reasonable/plausible/believable/useful, it represents a rare opportunity to actually confront ideas with which one disagrees, articulate why, and hear responses from the proponents of opposing views. Perhaps journals should allow or encourage more back-and-forth arguing in print, which would put less of a premium on speed and agility of thought. But strategy already has too much public deference to dubious ideas.

3. The distinction between “science” and “debate” is overdrawn. Yes, the scientific revolution of the 17th century rejected formal public disputation in favor of experimental tests, but that in no way turned productive science into a bloodless affair of consulting the facts nor did it eliminate the “rhetorical” style of controversy, either then or later. Galileo, Spallanzani, and Pasteur, just off the top of my head, were ace experimentalists and ace polemicists, and the two roles were complementary. They conducted observations and experiments that they hoped would enable them to knock down their rivals’ arguments and win debates, and they framed their arguments to call attention to the aspects of theri experiments that were most persuasive.

The best modern description of scientific disputation and conflict that I know of is David Hull’s Science as a Process, which gives hair-raising accounts of blood feuds, debates, and coups amongst biological taxonomists. Hull shows that the cladistics wars ended up being an important engine of progress in biology and creates a compelling general evolutionary theory of scientific progress to explain why this was so.

4. Physicists now and from the beginning have engaged in vigorous polemics about the correct way to do physics. Here are a few examples: Particle vs. wave theories, action-at-a-distance vs. the ether, Einstein vs. Bohr on the status of quantum explanation, battles over the interpretation of quantum theory, bootstrap theory of the strong force vs. quarks/partons, the validity of string theory, the anthropic principle vs. its enemies, and now the multiverse explanation of vacuum properties vs. its enemies. Most of these disputes mingle “technical” and “philosophical” issues (although physicists actually tend to be pretty bad at arguing philosophy in my opinion).

Sometimes these disputes get settled by an empirical or theoretical breakthrough, but often they are never settled–people simply are persuaded that one view or another is more pragmatically useful or more aesthetically pleasing. In addition, shifts in what problems people are working on can change which “philosophical” views seem most compelling. There is some evidence that work on quantum computing has increased the currency of the “many-worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics because that interpretation “feels” more natural to people trying to manipulate qubits.

5. Economists are huge debaters. Macroeconomics is most notorious for this, and if you read the slanging that goes on amongst the various flavors of Keynesians, monetarists, neoclassicals, Austrians, and so on, you’ll see that debate is a live tradition in that line of work.

Closer to strategy, industrial organization is a field that was completely shaped by debates between the Harvard/MIT/Princeton/Stanford folks and the UCLA/Chicago crowd. Check out the classic 1970s volume Industrial Concentration: The New Learning to see new ideas being forged in the heat of intense (and somewhat rancorous) debate. I’ve attended a much more recent AEA session devoted to a debate about the proper definition of entry barriers, composed entirely of heavy hitters in the field. (Once again, the bigger intellectual problem in I.O. is a failure to debate–almost no one from the salt water school will ever cite or acknowledge work that is skeptical of the antitrust laws, such as Liebowitz and Margolies’s work on network effects or empirical public choice analysis of actual antitrust enforcement and its effects.)

Ah, you say, but these are really policy debates involving values and political passions and ideologies, not truly scientific ones. That’s not really true, but just for argument’s sake what would one make of the policy-free debates over equilibrium refinements in game theory back in the late 1980s and early 1990s? I witnessed seminar byplay between Sandy Grossman and Oliver Hart, famous coauthors in other areas, that was more “rhetorical” and debate-like than anything in our tame SMS session on competitive advantage.

6. Mathematicians certainly argue with one another a lot, because quite a lot of what they do is speculate about directions of research and/or proof strategies in advance of having actual proofs. Were quarternions a great advance or a dead end? How about catastrophe theory? Fractals? Moreover, mathematicians argue a lot about proper definitions as they come up with examples and counterexamples to the existing ones–it’s a bit like the game theory refinements literature where someone would come up with a game where a previously sound-looking refinement seemed to give the “wrong” answer. I haven’t read it, but reviews suggest that Lakatos’s Proofs and Refutations lays this process out in detail.

7. The particular debate about competitive advantage that Mike and I engaged in was not some frivolous exercise. There are two important points at stake. First, you cannot have efficient scholarly discourse if every term is up for grabs for redefinition by every writer. That type of terminological anarchy (note the good rhetoric there) makes it almost impossible to communicate. Mathematicians don’t argue over definitions because they’re not allowed by their community to redefine existing terms whenever they feel like it.

Strategy needs similar discipline. That necessity creates a “gold rush” problem where theorists pushing particular concepts may try to co-opt common terms even if those concepts have poor alignment with the connotations of those common terms. So it’s worth arguing about whether “competitive advantage” ought to be applied to a comparison between non-competitors, for example, or whether that is a misleading misappropriation given the current non-technical usage of the term.

Second, regardless of whether we get the optimal labels on our concepts, we need to clarify, stabilize, and distinguish them. As it stands now, we are still in a situation like that of thermodynamics before the differences among heat, energy, work, power, entropy, and temperature were established. This isn’t a labeling problem; if the labels were permuted but the concepts were distinguished there would be communication problems but the theoretical framework would still be coherent. Ours isn’t. Perhaps this blog can help remedy that.

5 Comments on “Strategy, science, and debates”

  1. teppo says:

    To add to the list of debates (specifically, point #4) – there were also the very fundamental debates between empiricism (Mach) and a more Kantian approach (Einstein) in physics – and we continue to have variants of this debate in the physical sciences: (very) simply put, do we privilege observation or theory? This SEP piece highlights some of the key issues –

    Frankly, similar debates also showed up, and continue to exist, in econ —- for example, and this goes way back (further back then what Steve cites), folks like Wesley Blair Mitchell arguing for a type of historicism/behaviorism/empiricism versus others who would privilege theory (e.g., Hayek) and the theory-dependence of observation — hearkens to the Germans versus Austrian methodenstreit. At stake are fundamental questions of epistemology, modes of knowing and knowledge creation.

    Strategic management can’t escape the above debates — any method, mode of theorizing etc takes implicit sides in important epistemological debates. We can talk pragmaticism all we want – but we still take sides. More on some of the above in a future post.

    And, let me add one other, quick thing here. I think we can talk about the beauty of pluralism and different perspectives in strategy (ok, yes, I partly see the point of that too) — but in strategy we’ve frankly got theories that simply are not true. Period. Now, of course there are others who disagree about which models and assumptions are the wrong ones – but that is precisely what is worth debating. Debate and discussion (rather than just ignoring the wrong theories and misguided colleagues, wink ;) can help the field make progress.

  2. @mdryall says:


    Point #7 is false … as I demonstrated in our debate. Don’t make me go over it again :))

    A false theory should be so demonstrated via logical exposition or empirical refutation. The idea that any of these issues are settled via a panel argument at a conference really stretches credulity. Of course, when theories are stated in ambiguous terms with claims stemming from vague logic, there isn’t much left to do *but* argue with each other over who is right.

    I don’t claim to know what ratio of philosophical naval-gazing to work-a-day, conventional scientific grinding is optimal for a field like ours. That said, the present ratio strikes me as far too large. More pew-pew, less yak-yak please!

  3. teppo says:

    Well, sure – I don’t know that those panel debates resolve anything – I completely agree. Though I think they are nonetheless very informative.

  4. stevepostrel says:

    Mike, a quick debating tip. You now appear to have conceded all my points 1-6, with a feeble bluff on 7. That’s no way to sway the crowd. Also, it supports my point about the avoidance behavior of the field–everybody has a reason for not engaging in direct argument with competing views. Some call this “science.”

    More much of the “logical exposition” and “empirical refutation” that takes place in science and math is embedded in the context of debates. Ask the ghosts of Cantor and Kronecker. Does argument development occur on the spot in front of crowds at conferences? Of course not. Does the prospect of having to stand up at such an event concentrate the mind back in the lab or office? You bet it does.

  5. One advantage to meeting in person is that it saves time, if you have clear ideas to exchange. Thus the Solvay Conferences gave physicists of the 1920s the opportunity to debate in order to exchange ideas iteratively toward a common goal.

    For the Republican party hopefuls being proved wrong would be a disaster.

    For a scientist (or anyone) seeking truth, discovering where you are wrong is an important part of the process. It happens not just once, or even once in a while. For a professor of business management to admit to repeated errors in peer-reviewed journals would be as disastrous as for a GOP presidential hopeful. The reason why both would be humiliated and professionally ruined is that academic life is largely political.

    True science has standards of proof and disproof, validation and falsifiability. Where those are lacking – sociology, economics, politics, religion – we have conference where a dozen professors (or other politicians) take turns talking to themselves in front of an audience.

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