My Grandfather’s Feet & The Scientific Method

My maternal grandfather was a very scientific man. Surprisingly so, for a man who worked his way up the ranks from a young boy in hotel kitchens to a senior finance and accounts manager.

Science and medicine may not have been a part of his career but were certainly an obsession in his personal life. He loved studying, researching and experimenting with medicine, especially homeopathy. That hazy view through dusty mesh windows of him pouring over thick medicine books, at his study table with his magnifying glass, are forever imprinted on my mind. It was the first sight of him we always caught as kids entering the gate.

But it didn’t stop with him reading.

He engaged us children in frequent discussions on medicine, symptoms, diseases… a discussion we often thought morbid, and he, just scientific… I distinctly remember one such summer afternoon in his room when, as we were discussing medicine – Nux Vomica, I think it was – I looked down at his feet. His heels were rough with deep gashes he had ignored, evidently for a long time. I asked him about it. Asking questions is in the bloodline after all, with him, then my mom and then us kids! I insisted, childishly, that he take care of it, “Right now!”

And in fact, he did. He went to the nearby pharmacy, compared various creams and meds and finally got himself one – let’s call it, “CrackHeal”. When he came home and showed it to me, instead of appreciating the effort, I told him he should have brought another brand that mom used at home, “FootPlus”, because, “It was the best”. He asked me why I thought it was the best and I replied that it just was. No question about it.

He didn’t challenge me, agree with me or correct me.

He cut a deal with me. “I will go out again and buy FootPlus right now. And for two weeks, I will apply FootPlus on my left foot and CrackHeal on my right. Then we can check which is better. Will you come and visit me again in two weeks?”

I looked up at mom as if asking if we would be back in two weeks. We got very little time with my maternal grandparents growing up. She nodded. It was summer holidays and we did live hardly an hour from them. We could come back. So it was that I struck a deal with my grandfather. Of course, I got lost in the stories of the Famous Five and Secret Seven and forgot it the very next day. It remained forgotten till we did go back to meet him, some 2-3 weeks later.

“Show me your feet, show me feet, are they healed now?” I chirped when I met him. As I sat on his bed across from his chair, he showed me both his feet. His right had healed better than his left. I was sad he hadn’t just used the medicine that worked on both feet and just gotten better. But he asked me if I remembered which leg was which medicine.

I said I did, “FootPlus left and CrackHeal right.”

He said, “Correct. Good girl. So now, which cream do you think is better?”

“You must have mixed up the creams.”

“I did not.” He laughed. “So which one is it?”

“CrackHeal”

As I think about today, I realize, he hadn’t shown me which cream was better.

My grandfather had given me one of my earliest lessons in the scientific method.

I was perhaps too young to understand it then. But it’s an incident that has stayed on with me. And something I have often gone back to, when I or someone else around me has had a tendency to declare one option superior to another. It has always made me ask, “How do I know this is better?” It has informed a lot of my decision making as an adult.

Today, I am in a better position to appreciate what my grandfather taught me. I would break it down into three lessons:

Lesson One: Be cautious with absolutes

Right, wrong. Superior, inferior. Best, worst: These are strong terms. They polarize opinion and must be used with care.

Not one, but perhaps many experiments and studies, quantitative or otherwise, are required before such a belief or proclamation.

The experiment made me look at pros and cons of every idea or option. It’s made me take popular opinion with a pinch of salt. It’s made me withhold my opinion when I don’t have sound evidence or reason substantiating it.

When I read a study or “research report” today, I scroll down to the section on methodology before deciding how much I can rely on the findings.

Lesson Two: Pilot multiple ideas simultaneously

I guess it’s an improvement on the traditional method of having a control group and an experiment group. He could have tried using one cream on one foot and not treating the other to study in-depth the impact of one cream. And then repeat the experiment after substantial time gap to recreate the situation, with the other cream. Instead, he improvised. Or applied common sense. He tried one cream on each foot and experimented.

His approach made me look at creative ways to adapt the scientific method to any situation I am in.

Can I choose a path of creativity over one of compromise?

As a learning facilitator and an OD consultant, it makes me value the step of diagnosis before recommending a design. Today, I like to explore things like AGILE and A/B testing as approaches and concepts to learn and adopt from, across all disciplines

Lesson Three: Prepare to be disproved

Being right fuels an arrogance that can only be balanced with the humility brought on by being wrong.

It’s a difficult lesson to learn and a struggle to accept. But I don’t think my grandfather’s experiment would have left as indelible a mark as it has, if I had been proved right. I would have found it easier to be dismissive and just tell him he wasted his time for nothing and that I was right all along.

When I look back, I feel happy I was wrong. It taught me an important lesson. That being objective, being open, allowing yourself to be challenged – all of these important leadership qualities also involve a very important realization – That somebody else, not you, can be right.

As I work with so many different people today, this incident keeps me humble, reminds me that learning can come from anyone anywhere and allows me to say, “I’m sorry, I was wrong” … not always easily, but at least gracefully. Thank you, Thatha.

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