Too Many Cooks Spoil the Myth -Hidden Hypotheses Syndrome

You likely have heard many of the maxims like the one about cooks and broth – Too many cooks spoil the broth. And likely used it without realizing it and even though you and your colleagues are not cooks or when your work does not really involve making broths. But I can say with high certainty that you never asked,

“Do too many cooks really spoil the broth?”

Thankfully humorist Joe Queenan did. As he set out to question this and many other maxims, Mr. Queenan wonders why they are never true. He offers us some infinite wisdom like,

The English language abounds with hoary maxims—tidbits of putative wisdom that, upon closer examination, prove to be completely idiotic.

The list of time-honored, moronic maxims is by no means tiny.

Folk wisdom is equally cretinous.

The best part is his line of question on the maxim on cooks and broth.

Do too many cooks spoil the broth? Was there a control group with a smaller number of cooks and different broth?

What was likely a humorous take is actually asking relevant questions when rest of us have suspended disbelief and accept these as enunciated truth. Our suspension of disbelief and acceptance of inanities extend beyond broths and watched pots into business realm.

Take a closer look at his line of questioning. A simple question on evidence and the method of analysis that opens wide upon the veracity of the claim.  This simple question we fail to ask when we see, read, listen to Gurus and charlatans presenting their pet theories in bite sized chunks and colorful TED speeches.

Mr. Queenan’s simple question bring out the issues you and I need to worry about when we read, “women in board led to better share performance“. Or “women who play video games have more sex“. Or when a popular Guru sees a movie and writes up business lessons.

The issues are

  1. How was the hypotheses developed in the first place?
  2. How was it verified to be stated as a claim – the experimental design and data collection?
  3. What hidden hypotheses are at play? (As he asks, will the result be different with different broths?)

We seem to be longing for the the comfort of Gurus walking down the mountain with simple business maxims for us to Retweet (and follow). All it takes is one visit to a store or a cab ride for them to come up with sweeping prescriptions for all of us, regardless of the variations. One instance of a chaotic kitchen with cooks milling around and someone tipping over broth pot lets them declare universal theory about cooks and broths.

You cannot place all the blame on them. More than 70% of the blame should be on us – the willing audience that has suspended disbelief. And our failure to recognize the simple fact that it is not enough to know that data fits one hypothesis and we need to look for falsifying evidence.

Here is a simple message – No one can be trusted so verify and trust with reservations.