In another part of the social and political spectrum, I have friends who deeply believe that capitalism and unfettered markets will be the key to solving our biggest social and environmental problems. Markets do help solve some problems; there is plenty of evidence for that. But markets are far from perfect, and they have failed to solve our most pressing social challenges so far. In the real world — not an economics classroom — markets are always distorted by powerful special interests (it’s called a political economy for a reason) with all their loopholes, tax breaks and subsidies. Also, our current market system chooses to discount the value of the future (even when real people value their children more than anything else) and describe our most important values (such as freedom, health, security and sustainability) as “externalities,” as if they’re not worthy of consideration. So, I wonder, where is the evidence that market forces, left to themselves, will fix our biggest problems? I’d like to believe this too, but I’m skeptical.

I’m not trying to undermine either of these worldviews, but I would like to respectfully challenge my friends in both camps to scrutinize their underlying theories of change and test them against the available evidence. Do the data really support this theory of change? If they do, that’s great! You’re on to something! But if they don’t, then isn’t it time to step back and try again, starting with new assumptions?

Of course, testing our theory of change is excruciatingly hard. I’ll admit it. Most of us aren’t even aware of our theories of change and the biases that go along with them, so the idea of testing them is far from most of our minds.

Testing our theories of change requires a lot of work, intellectual rigor, the willingness to challenge our friends, and, worst of all, the ability to admit that maybe I was wrong.

Making things even harder, the social pressures associated with our theory of change (what some call the “tribalism of ideas”) are enormous. We tend to surround ourselves with the people who share our theory of change, creating an inadvertent echo chamber, reinforcing our core beliefs and assumptions, rarely letting new ideas in. Heck, we can even choose entire media outlets that reinforce our deeply held theories, whether it’s Fox News or MSNBC. So testing our theory of change is tough. It can alienate our friends and make them feel that we have betrayed the cause. (Just ask Mark Lynas, who went from anti-GMO social activist to GMO technology proponent, how he’s feeling these days. He tested his theory of change, found it lacking, said so very publicly, and lost a lot of friends in the process.)

Over the years, I’ve had to toss out some of my own assumptions and theories of change (and I still have some scars to show for it). In the end, I try to scrutinize my own (and my “tribe’s”) assumptions and theories of change as much as possible, and have learned to let go of bad ideas. But it’s very, very hard.

So beware: Testing our theories of change requires a lot of work, intellectual rigor, the willingness to challenge our friends, and, worst of all, the ability to admit that maybe I was wrong. It’s not easy. It’s not for the timid. It’s likely to hurt. And it’s absolutely necessary.

My instincts tell me that all of our theories of change are probably wrong, at least in part. But they all probably contain an element of truth as well. The trick is to constantly scrutinize our theories, and those of others, and rigorously test for that truth.

At the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where I spent many years as a student and professor, there is a wonderful plaque that encourages the “…continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.” We should take this advice to heart. Only by challenging our theories of change, subjecting them to that sifting and winnowing process, will we find the right ones — the ones that actually work and allow us to change the world. A failure to do so is a failure we can no longer afford.  View Ensia homepage

Editor’s note: The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily of Ensia. We present them to further discussion around important topics. We encourage you to respond with a comment below, following our commenting guidelines, which can be found here. In addition, you might consider submitting a Voices piece of your own. See Ensia’s “Contact” page for submission guidelines.

UPDATED 03.28.13 to clarify distinctions among various individuals and groups challenging the environmental mainstream.