Coffee Science for CoffeePreneurs by CoffeeMind

Coffee science methodology Episode 2: Out of the cave with Plato

February 04, 2022 Morten Episode 5
Coffee science methodology Episode 2: Out of the cave with Plato
Coffee Science for CoffeePreneurs by CoffeeMind
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Coffee Science for CoffeePreneurs by CoffeeMind
Coffee science methodology Episode 2: Out of the cave with Plato
Feb 04, 2022 Episode 5
Morten

In this episode we will go all the way back to Plato to discuss what a good theory looks like if it is to serve a community and not mislead

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode we will go all the way back to Plato to discuss what a good theory looks like if it is to serve a community and not mislead

The history of the scientific theory

Welcome to the second episode of the podcast series about scientific methodology. If you have not heard the first episode, I would suggest you stop right now and go to the first episode and get a thorough introduction to the background of this podcast series before hearing this episode. This is a podcast series but it is published in parallel on Youtube so if you see this on YouTube please also subscribe to the podcast so that you can bring this education to your commute or other more handy places to dwell on a long format like this podcast series. If you listen to this podcast I just want to tell you that you can also find it on YouTube should you choose to use it for education internally in your company or just see it with your family instead of TV Saturday night.

Again, to be transparent when it comes to my claims and my refutations of some well-established theories and methods in the coffee business, I will now go through what is considered the classical historical theories for correct scientific reasoning. There are plenty of books about this and even though a quick wiki search will be all you need to check the facts and theories I have found a contemporary book on the subject which should be easy to get regardless of where you are in the world: “Theory and reality – An introduction to the Philosophy of Science” by Peter Godfrey-Smith. But I urge you to just do a quick Wikipedia search if you want to explore any subject deeper.

Plato

Plato is often referred to as one of the first systematic thinkers leading to western philosophy and remembering his work The Republic from my education it reminds me quite a bit of the situation I feel we are in in the specialty coffee business these days. There are an abundance of opinions, observations, hypotheses, theories, data and so on and it might be difficult to distinguish the better ones over the less good theories and observations. And if bad theories are dominating a Republic it is not possible for the citizens in the republic to lead lives derived from the pure idea of the good life as was the goal for Plato. I feel this is a relevant reflection here as the global coffee community is a society trying to live the good life and the degree to which we succeed depends on how we navigate our businesses with product development and quality control and how all this ties into the business model. How do we generate better models and who do we trust to do this?

To illustrate the difference between unqualified opinion and true knowledge Plato developed a cave allegory and claimed that most people live in a shadow world in a cave and only some people – that he calls “the philosophers” – can use proper methodology of reflection to leave the cave and gaze at the ideas behind the shadow world. Any major amount of observations of objects can’t take you out of the cave as you are still embedded in shadow and dim light by interacting with all the objects in the cave. In his cave allegory only methodology can take you out of the cave where the true ideas behind the objects are directly visible. 

Perceptions in the opinion domain can be great for finding new hypotheses that could be turned into knowledge if the correct method is applied to the investigation.

As a teacher through many years, I know about the anxiety of me failing to distinguish between my true knowledge refined by the scientific method and my private hypothesis about something I have just said so many times that I start to really believe it is true. When teaching it can be a bit worrying if you can keep your mind sharp on this distinction. I’m pretty sure that about 80% of what I say is right and perhaps 20% is only ‘opinion’ but it is not always clear to me what the 20% is! The best you can do as an educator is to try to be self-critical about it and open to the question that some of your claims are just claims and not established facts which you could only be sure about if somebody else has found the same conclusion following an objective method where you have not had access to influence the process. The way we do this in CoffeeMind with our roast profile research is that I create the roasting profiles and Ida gathers her panel who are not told anything about what the project is about and only if they in a blinded, replicated and randomized setup independently of each other find the same differences that I found, my hypothesis about the relationship between a roast parameter and sensory consequences would be proven – or disproven. For years I have been teaching coffee roasting to students and had a lot of claims that I could easily convince my students about, and I think that this is the tempting situation that many trainers have found themselves in: If they can convince all their students about their claims, they must be true. But how can we distinguish between convincing anecdotes and true knowledge? As a student this can be difficult because how should you, who is neither experienced nor knowledgeable be able to tell the difference? This is why you have been seeking out education in the first place! It is exactly my hope with the podcast to give you a clear picture of what a good methodology and a good theory looks like so that you can better tell anecdotes from reliable knowledge. A really simple strategy you can use immediately is to ask deeper about the ‘why’ of the theory. Why would you say this? What difference does it make? Are you sure that difference is big enough to be relevant? If you still feel that the answers are a bit anecdotal you can start asking ‘are you sure’? And why are you sure? If you don’t get either a really clear and simple setup that would prove why it is relevant or see some convincing sensory data, I would still reserve my right to consider it a vague hypothesis and not solid knowledge. Fundamentally by posing the above questions you are zooming into the methodology with which the teacher gathers skills and knowledge. Correct method is at the heart of reliable knowledge.

Plato had a similar problem with the Sophists who was a competing school of thought he did not respect: He thought they imitated philosophers without having real elevated knowledge but rather just a lot of accumulated opinions that they presented as true knowledge and thereby played the role of true philosophers towards the citizens who struggled to tell the difference. But still they tried to play the role of the philosopher. Misleading the audience by mistaking opinion from real knowledge and promoting lesser opinions as real knowledge.

Plato wrote these ideas in his book The Republic where he argues that a Republic should be ruled by philosopher kings who are born into this position and are not allowed to own anything to avoid any impulses of self-interest. This way they could rule exclusively with the interests of the republic in mind using true knowledge derived from the highest philosophical virtues and ideas. Plato has been criticized for promoting dictatorship and it is clear to see how his ideas could point in that direction but there is something compelling about the idea of the existence of some qualified knowledge which is elevated over mere opinion if proper methodology has been applied turning opinion (or hypothesis) into higher knowledge.

What I suggest in this podcast series is that we - as a community - start to pay some interest in the difference between knowledge and opinion and develop our understanding of the importance of methodology as a community so that we are all better at distinguishing mere opinion from qualified knowledge. As I said in the first episode in this podcast series there is a long and useful development of methodology in the area called theory of science and research design that can help us being specific when it comes to this endeavor and I will do my best to take what I find useful to build exactly this. So let’s not have any kings but focus on the concepts as such and let them speak for themselves when we pursue improvement of the fundamental concepts we use to control quality and do experiments in the global coffee community. This would be an effort of turning all the opinions and hypotheses out there into true knowledge by applying the right methods for the right research questions.

I would also like to point out the fact that Plato’s Republic was an attempt to illustrate the good society (shaped after the philosophical idea of the good) to create the circumstances of the good life and this is an important point for CoffeePreneurs because we also share this aspiration with Plato: In the global coffee community we want to create our own small kingdom of goodness for ourselves and our customers to enjoy the good life. So, the knowledge we seek must support this part of Plato’s vision too.