Technique, Science or Judgement – Choosing an appropriate Decision Style

On this morning’s Today Programme on Radio 4, the Communities Minister suggested that while the Prime Minister was still guided by the science in deciding how to respond to the Covid pandemic, he had to make a judgement on what was best for the country as a whole.  Rarely has something been so easy to express but so difficult to achieve, particularly as he will be roundly castigated for doing either, both or neither, irrespective of the associated facts. But that – the Post Truth world – is another topic entirely.

The PM’s troubles though do offer a useful illustration of one of the problems facing decision makers.  Specifically, which decision style to adopt.  And while this is very relevant to today’s complex decision-making contexts, it is definitely nothing new.  In fact, the Greek philosopher Aristotle offered a useful guide in a previous-but-one millennia!

He did so by identifying three approaches to problem solving (and thus decision making).  Actually, to be accurate, he identified three types of knowledge but the distinction is moot as each type can be related to a particular decision style.

The first type would today be called technical knowledge, or learning how to use tools, techniques and methods to create something; for instance, a statistical database of what has happened or is happening.  The second would be called scientific knowledge or learning; the discovery of unarguable facts which together explain why or how something has to be, no matter how imperfect such a description currently is.  This, of course, is where the science is guiding us with respect to coping with the Covid pandemic.  The third – for when the answer is not obvious, and things can be subject to argument – is judgement; or how best to balance competing options.

Life, of course, and with it complex decision making cannot be compartmentalised into individual and separate decision types whereby if you apply the correct approach to each, it will lead to an single right answer.  But being able to identify decisions by type, applying the most appropriate decision styles, and recognising the weaknesses of all, can be very useful.  Simply put, if you need to make a judgment-based decision, don’t simply rely on a science-based approach, or a proven technical method.  Recognise it for what it is, take what technique and science can offer, but make a value-based decision, preferably from the first moment one is needed.        

Back to provologues