Teaching EBMgt: developing better managers, or educating critical thinkers?

On the Facebook group Evidence-Based Management, Laura Guerrero asks:

In terms of the big picture, I wonder what people think in terms of why we ought to teach using EBMgt.

I hear people talk about studies and research. The way they talk about these suggests to me that they do not understand what they are or how to evaluate them. For example, there is a study that says that plastic water bottles leak a substance in to your water and this is bad for you.

Here in Canada, a number of people threw out their water bottles and bought metal water bottles and now city parks want to ban bottled water. A number of stores have stopped selling this type of plastic bottle. I wonder if people have a sense of what ‘bad for you’ means, how this finding was reached, whether they should trust their morning news anchor to deliver scientific news, and so forth.

I wonder if it is my responsibility as a professor-to-be to instruct students on how to be critical thinkers and skeptical consumers of information. In other words, I think that EBMgt is important to develop better managers who will make better decisions. But I wonder if there is also a bigger purpose: to educate critical thinkers.

The students in my Evidence-Based Management course at the University of Cape Town are almost all just out of secondary school, and I suspect that my answer to Laura’s question would be very different if the course was being taught to graduate students in an MBA class. Generally, I’d have to argue that teaching Evidence-Based anything would require the students to have some understanding of what evidence is, when it is needed, and what to do with it. So while we would hope that graduate students know some of this already, we can’t take that knowledge for granted. If your students don’t understand the basics of scientific reasoning, teaching them EBMgt may well end up being a simple installation of various principles that they could proceed to treat as dogma, thereby remaining as uncritical as they were when starting the course. So yes, where students don’t have the knowledge in question, it would be a professor’s responsibility to instruct students on how to be critical thinkers first, before embarking on any discussion of application of principles in critical reasoning, such as EBMgt.

The job is perhaps easier at undergraduate level, such as in my course. There, it’s almost invariably the case that students have not been exposed to the principles of drawing conclusions based on the available evidence, and are quite comfortable with holding contradictory or incoherent beliefs, simply because they have never been exposed to the contradictions or incoherencies. In this context, teaching EBMgt starts with general principles of scientific thinking and critical reasoning, and often ends there too, because as anyone who teaches this material work knows, there is much work to do in terms of undermining the prejudices and lazy thinking habits that permeate the cognitive processes of the average student. It’s only once the fundamentals of reasoning are in place that we can begin to talk, and think, about more complex cases of evidence-based reasoning in professional practice.

A fantastic recent book that I’ll be adding to my course as suggested reading is Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, which does a terrific job (as regular readers of his blog and Guardian column will know) of highlighting and explaining some of the obvious ways in which our species makes life so much harder for ourselves, through constantly believing the most crazy things simply because we’re too lazy (and often unprepared) to think about them.

Developing better managers is certainly a positive result, but it pales into insignificance when compared with developing better thinkers more generally. Some of those thinkers may go on to be good managers, but in the meanwhile, we’ve also hopefully helped to produce a few good teachers, plumbers, doctors and parents.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.