Research: Moving Beyond Cause-and-Effect Thinking

By Linda Fisher Thornton

The traditional view of research in the U.S. has been that something has to be proven to a statistically significant degree using established research procedures. It should be able to be replicated to confirm that the results are accurate and true. The problem is that established research procedures generally call for isolating one thing at a time to prove cause and effect, but we live in a world of complex, connected systems.

“People don’t become systems thinkers because systems thinking is so cool; they do so because they discover that linear thinking won’t answer their questions. Linear thinking is cause-and-effect thinking.”

JIM OLLHOFF and MICHAEL WALCHESKI,MAKING THE JUMP TO SYSTEMS THINKING, TheSystemsThinker.com

Is an “Accurate” Study Possible? 

Researchers may pride themselves on accuracy using the current approach, but cause-and-effect thinking may still lead to mistakes. The traditional research thinking believes that if a study is accurate, we should be able to repeat it and get the same result. If we do, then the effect has been “proven.” The problem with this thinking is that if we try to prove something is or is not causing something else, we ignore important variables that limit both the accuracy and the usefulness of the results:

  • The context may change the outcome (and context isn’t factored in if we’re using cause-and-effect thinking)
  • Some effects happen only some of the time (a repeated study may result in different conclusions without either study being wrong)
  • There may be other impacting causes that were not studied that led to the outcome

Which Research Studies Are Reliable?

There are so many predatory publishers sharing fake research results (see this Yale link) that it is becoming harder to tell which studies are responsibly conducted. The results of research studies are used to make decisions that have a broad effect on society and any fraud in the process can cause harm. 

Complexity Can’t Be Ignored

Our understanding of DNA and genes has progressed to the point where we know that certain combinations of things can result in genes being switched “on” or “off.” According to the US National Library of Medicine Genetics Home Reference Article Can Genes Be Turned On and Off in Cells? “Genes are turned on and off in different patterns during development to make a brain cell look and act different from a liver cell or a muscle cell, for example. Gene regulation also allows cells to react quickly to changes in their environments. This means that in addition to our external environment being impacted by many different changing systems at the same time, our internal environment is also made up of complex connecting systems that adapt to changing conditions.

Closed Loop Peer-Review System Can Block Innovation

Academics and professionals who are pressured to publish sometimes game the already flawed peer review systemThe research publishing system has built-in biases that are attracting increasing attention and some scholars believe that the peer review process by design can block innovative work. According to Aaron E. Carroll, professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, “It takes significant reviewer agreement to have a paper accepted. One potential downside is that important research bucking a trend or overturning accepted wisdom may face challenges surviving peer review.” (Aaron E. Carroll, Peer Review: The Worst Way to Judge Research Except For All the Others, New York Times)

Can you ever isolate a cause and effect relationship when studying multiple connected and adapting systems? How can you test research more reliably before it is published? The current system of research and publication (a system with built-in hurdles that may block innovative thinking) is in need of innovative thinking. 

 

 

 

 

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About Linda Fisher Thornton
Linda Fisher Thornton is Founder and CEO of Leading in Context, and author of the award-winning book 7 Lenses. She teaches as Adjunct Assoc. Prof. for University of Richmond SPCS. She is leading a movement to help leaders and organizations Unleash the Positive Power of Ethical Leadership.

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