A recent post on Facebook asked the question: Is the Enneagram a science? The 2013 edition of The Enneagram Journal, includes an excellent article by CJ Fitzsimons and Jack Killen titled, “How Science Can Help Solve the Enneagram’s Credibility Problem.” I have written numerous blogs and articles and given conference keynote and endnote talks about approaching the Enneagram with a “scientific” mindset. The issue of science and the Enneagram will come up more frequently and those who use the Enneagram will have to grapple with this question as the Enneagram becomes better known and more mainstream: Is the Enneagram a science, and what are the implications of the answer?
Before we can answer these questions, however, we have to make sure we understand the terms, and that is the topic of this article: What is science, what is non-science, and why does the distinction matter in our work with the Enneagram? We’ll also talk about pseudoscience, and why it is so dangerous.
Oxford Dictionaries online defines science as “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” For the sake of this article, I would like to think of “non-science” as useful ways of understanding and interpreting the world and our experience of it that do not fit this definition and thus are not science.
Unfortunately, the border between science and non-science is fuzzy and imprecise. In the philosophy of science, this is known as the “demarcation” problem: where does science end and non-science begin? The philosopher Karl Popper tried to solve it by advocating the concept of falsifiability as the borderline. To falsify a hypothesis is to test it with the intention of trying to prove it false. For example, if I believe a ball will float in a bucket of water, I place the ball in a bucket of water and see what happens. If it sinks, I have falsified my hypothesis. Using Popper’s standard, the question of whether or not a particular ball will float in water is a scientific question. The question of whether a leprechaun or a unicorn would float in a bucket of water is not a scientific question, however, because there is no way to test your hypothesis. That which can be tested and possibly disproven is science; that which cannot be tested and possibly disproven is not science.¹
Popper used the ideas of Marx, Freud, and Adler as examples of things that could not be falsified—they may have some explanatory power, but there is little predictive power and there is no real way to prove the ideas wrong. For example: How do we know when a “Freudian” slip actually points to something significant and when it doesn’t? If I call my wife, “Mom,” it may point to some deep unresolved issue and it may not. My error may be a starting point for self-exploration, but there is no real way to conduct an experiment that is falsifiable when it comes to most of Freud’s ideas.
The correlative of not being able to prove an hypothesis wrong, however, is that you also can’t prove it correct. Concepts such as the Freudian slip may or may not shed light on the human condition, but they are not science. For an idea, concept, or model to be scientific it has to have some predictive capability that can then be tested—when I do this, that will happen. We might observe that I have a tendency to occasionally call my wife “Mom,” but it would be very difficult to predict an outcome from that observation and then test the prediction. Could we even imagine creating a test for a hypothesis along the lines of “Junior made a Freudian slip today, therefore he will fail his algebra test.” The ideas of Marx, Freud, and Adler (to stick with Popper’s examples) may have some after the fact explanatory power, but they are of very little use for making reliable predictions about what will happen in the future.
Thus, falsifiability is a part of the scientific method, the way by which one draws scientific conclusions. While there is no one, official scientific method, when scientists use the term they are typically talking about these steps:
1. Observe phenomena.
2. Create a hypothesis that might explain the phenomena.
3. Test the hypothesis and attempt to prove it wrong (rather than simply trying to find evidence that supports it).
4. If the hypothesis fails the test, revise your hypothesis and retest.
5. The more attempts at falsification a hypothesis passes, the more confident one can be that it is accurate.
It is important to point out that good scientists always avoid certainty about a hypothesis that has not yet been falsified, even one that has withstood many tests. Skepticism and open-mindedness are critical attitudes in the pursuit of science. This does not mean, however, one can’t be reasonably certain that an assertion is wrong if it has been falsified. (One can be certain that the earth is not flat, for example, because that hypothesis has been proven to be false through a variety of tests.) It also means that we can safely assume that some ideas are so highly probable (the laws of thermodynamics, gravity, evolution, to name a few) that we can reasonably speak as if they are certainties.
It is important to point out that good scientists, or science-minded people in general, don’t claim that that their hypothesis has been “scientifically proven.” Such claims are usually the sign of hucksterism. Einstein famously said that no number of experiments can prove him right, but it only takes one experiment to prove him wrong. The application of the scientific method either falsifies or increases one’s level of confidence; it doesn’t prove a positive claim definitively.
It is also important to point out that science adheres to the principle of naturalism, meaning that it follows the rules of the natural world and does not allow for “supernatural” explanations for phenomena. This is not to take a position about whether the supernatural exists or not, it is merely to say that science, by its nature, can’t test claims for which there is no empirical evidence; if one is making supernatural claims, one is not doing science. If someone is making claims beyond what can be empirically tested, they are no longer doing science. Science focuses on the objective—essentially, that which is true no matter how you feel about it. It does not make subjective claims (those which are based on our individual feelings or opinions). Science can tell me what the chemical composition of chocolate ice cream is, but it is not in the business of helping me decide whether I prefer it to vanilla. (While I don’t like the term “scientism” because it is usually used by people to denigrate science when science contradicts their beliefs, there is a very real danger in thinking that science can answer questions of values rather than questions of fact.)
This brings us to non-science. Often, especially in spiritual circles, one will hear about “different ways of knowing.” It is possible to “know” things non-scientifically. For example, the fact that I love my children is something that I “know” subjectively and I cannot or need not prove it “scientifically.” The realm of values and ethics is not the domain of science; it is the domain of philosophy, religion, and spirituality. Science tells us facts about the world; philosophy, religion, and spirituality help us figure out what to make of those facts and how to live our lives accordingly.
As I said, whenever a “scientist” is making claims related to values, he or she is no longer doing science. On the other hand, whenever someone is making a fact claim, suggesting that some assertion about the objective world is true and is testable, they are doing science (even if they are doing it poorly and inaccurately). For example, if a religious creationist claims that the world is 10,000 years old they are making a claim that can be falsified and their claim should not be protected as “their truth” just because they believe it as part of their religion. Whether or not one should turn the other cheek is a matter of values and ethics rather than science, but the age of the earth can be empirically measured and there are definite wrong answers.
There are other ways of experiencing the world that provide non-scientific insights: art, music, literature, meditation, self-reflection, etc. But it is important to remember that these provide subjective insights and may not apply to everyone in all cases. They are basically opinions, even if we concede that some opinions are more informed than others and thus more valuable. Both these and the sciences have their role and we shouldn’t confuse the two by misapplying them to the improper domain. It is completely appropriate to use different tools for different tasks.
Non-science is useful; in fact, it is critical to living life fully. Thinking one can live life relying only on science as a way of understanding the world is just as flawed as thinking one can ignore what science teaches us. A person who truly wants to understand the world and their place in it should try to practice scientific thinking and non-scientific thinking in equal measures and applied to the correct domain.
Pseudoscience, however, usually reinforces ignorance rather than sheds light on a topic. “Pseudo” means false or sham, and pseudoscience is that which purports to be science but violates fundamental principles of science either through intellectual acts of omission or acts of commission. In other words, pseudoscience is usually the outcome of one of two circumstances: a) one tries to do good science but does it ineptly and overlooks the evidence that falsifies one’s hypotheses or b) one’s cherished non-scientific beliefs clash with scientific facts, so one criticizes or rejects the evidence in order to justify the (inaccurate) belief.
Astrology, many “alternative” healing systems, physiognomy (the assessment of personality characteristics based on physical features), intelligent design creationism, and climate-change denialism are examples pseudoscience. (The scope of this article is too limited to describe why each of these is a pseudoscience, but there are some good resources available online on how to differentiate science from pseudoscience ².)
Sometimes pseudoscience advocates are simply ignorant of the facts; other times they actively reject inconvenient evidence. Sometimes this rejection is non-conscious due to some cognitive bias; other times it is a conscious decision with the intent to take advantage of others or promote a socio-political agenda. Pseudoscience, rather than informing us, causes us to stop seeking the truth, instead settling for false explanations of objective phenomena. It is the embrace of illusion rather than the search for wisdom.
One final category of “knowing” is worth mentioning here: protoscience. A “protoscience” is a field that may (or may not) be on its way to becoming science and provides some testable hypotheses but is still marked by a high degree of speculation and interpretation. Philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn used the example of chemistry prior to the mid-18th century as an example. Some of today’s social sciences, particularly psychology, fall into this category as well. What differentiates a protoscience from a pseudoscience is its advocates’ willingness to modify their hypothesis when new facts become available or their hypotheses are falsified. The science of astronomy, for example has its roots in the protoscience of ancient astrology. As new facts were learned, the science-minded abandoned many of the falsified hypotheses of astrology and the science of astronomy emerged. However, some did not assimilate the new information and the ancient protoscientific astrology evolved into the modern pseudoscience of astrology we know today.
So is the Enneagram a science?
I don’t think it is possible to falsify the idea that there are basically nine types of people. There are so many ways of using the Enneagram—wings, subtypes, levels, etc.—that we Enneagrammers can respond to (or explain away) almost any objection to the notion that everyone fits somewhere on the model. I have also found very little predictive value in the Enneagram—we can’t predict with any useful reliability how someone will respond to a given situation or circumstance no matter how much we know about a person’s Enneagram profile.
Please note—I am not saying we can’t predict a general trend or probabilities, I am saying we can’t use the Enneagram to predict specific outcomes. For example, Eights are thought of as being “assertive” or “moving against” (to use Karen Horney’s terms). Thus, some think that they can predict that an Eight will always move against other people when conflict arises. While Eights may be more likely than most to move against, they are not combative all the time—sometimes they are easygoing; sometimes they are compliant; sometimes they are even fearful. Anyone who observes them will know that while the “move against” probability is high, Eights will surprise you. People of all the types will surprise you in similar ways. Thus, the model is not reliably predictive.
The value of the Enneagram, however, is in its explanatory power. We can observe the actions of a particular Eight and interpret them post hoc through the lens of the Enneagram and derive some useful conclusions—“Ah, Jane had a very aggressive response to that proposal; it may be related to her ‘Eightness’ in some way; let’s explore this further….”
Thus, at its core, the Enneagram is not a science but it is a pretty useful non-science with a great deal of explanatory power.
The Enneagram world seems to be a place where science, non-science, and pseudoscience often intersect. This intersection creates danger, in the same way two oceans coming together at the Cape of Africa cause treacherous seas that have sunk many a ship. If we are going to use the Enneagram to help us realize ourselves more accurately, we need to know that we are using the right tool (be it science or non-science) at the right time, and that we are avoiding pseudoscience.
There probably are some claims we can make about the Enneagram that are scientific, but probably not as many as we would like to think. If we do make a claim about the Enneagram that we claim is scientific, we should be able to support it with scientifically derived facts. For example, I have seen claims that our Ennea-type is “genetically based,” which means that it is rooted in our genes, but I have seen no evidence to support this and I find it highly dubious given how little we know about what is and is not genetically based in general. Granted, anecdotal observation inclines me to think that our Ennea-type is innate (i.e., we are “born that way”) but this is not the same as being “genetically based” because there are many non-genetic pre-natal factors that help shape our temperament. Scientific claims need to be supported with scientific evidence; opinions based on anecdotal evidence should just be seen as starting points for further discussion and exploration. We need to be able to distinguish between matters of fact and matters of opinion and, if we are teachers of the Enneagram, we must be clear when we are asserting which. Relating our subjective experiences to others is fine and worthwhile, as long as we don’t assume it is anything more than our subjective experience.
Most wisdom traditions contain an element of intellectual rigor that balances the emotional element of the tradition; I think of the Jesuits in Catholicism or, in Hinduism, Jnana yoga—the pursuit of enlightenment through philosophy—as vivid examples. Such rigor benefits the study of the Enneagram as well, and we grow best when we learn to face unpleasant insights about ourselves and our world whether those insights come from scientific or non-scientific methods. This is what “the work” is all about. If we’re not careful, the fuzziness that lies in conflating science and non-science can lead to deeper illusion, not enlightenment.
Future articles will provide tools for critical thinking as it relates to the Enneagram in an effort to help us navigate these waters more safely.
Mario Sikora is an executive coach and consultant who advises leaders in large multinational organizations and conducts Enneagram-based certification programs and workshops across the globe. He is the co-author of Awareness to Action: The Enneagram, Emotional Intelligence, and Change and past president of the Board of Directors of the IEA. He continues to serve on the board of directors and overseas international affairs for the IEA. He can be reached via his website: www.awarenesstoaction.com.
1 See http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/popper_falsification.html for an excerpt from Popper’s writings on the topic.
2 For a good overview of the characteristics of pseudoscience, go to http://www.quackwatch.com/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/pseudo.html and http://www.ithaca.edu/beins/methods/materials/char-pseudo.htm