Skip to content

Marketing, Science and Pseudoscience

2011 July 17
by Greg Satell

“Science” is a word that gets thrown around a lot.  We hear that “scientists say” so and so and then hear later that other scientists say something totally different.

We often ask for “scientific proof” and hucksters are always happy to provide “studies” to support their claims. Unfortunately, much of what is passed of as science is really pseudoscience.

Just because someone in a white lab coat or with an alphabet soup of letters behind his name says something doesn’t make it true and it certainly doesn’t make it science.  It gets worse when the term is invoked in relation to a business function, especially marketing. So how can we tell the difference between science and pseudoscience?  Here’s a guide:

Science Begins With an Idea

Science is an imaginative, creative process.  From the beginning of humanity, there have been people who looked at the world around them and conjectured about basic laws. Einstein himself said that, “I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.”

Sometimes these ideas are quite sensible and almost instantly accepted, as in the case of Newton.  Other times, like in the case of Galileo, the idea is taken as heresy.  Whatever the case, the edifice of science is built on a foundation of postulates.

Unfortunately, the same can be said of pseudoscience.  We are inundated with people’s ideas, some quite clever, some seemingly outlandish and others that seem so reasonable that we feel they have to be true.  Nevertheless, simply having a brainy notion doesn’t mean that you’re engaging in scientific inquiry.

Science is Furthered Through Observation

Another important aspect of science is that it is driven by observation.  While some scientists are theorists, churning out new ideas, others are experimentalists who spend their days testing and observing.

In some cases, as with Brownian motion, the observation comes first and then only later (even decades or centuries later) a theory comes along to explain it.  Other times, as with Einstein’s relativity, the theory comes first and is verified after.

Unfortunately, pseudoscientists make lots of observations too, especially when there’s money involved.  They can always play up data that confirms their ideas and then dismiss evidence to the contrary.  Charlatans can be quite persuasive.

Science is Falsifiable

Science, however, is falsifiable and that’s the key difference.  Science doesn’t take the form of an argument, but provides testable statements that can be disproved.

As physicist Richard Feynman wrote, “The idea is to try to give all the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.”  In other words, real science makes real predictions that others can verify or debunk.

That’s probably the best way to spot pseudoscientists, like paranormalists, “intelligent design” theorists and marketing gurus.  You can’t prove them wrong.  They build up straw men, beat them to hell and then show a “new way.”  Usually, the proposal is much more attractive than conventional notions.

Science can always be proven wrong.  Pseudoscience never can.

Unproven Science

The word “science” is so often invoked because of the misguided notion that science is about “proof.”  It’s not.  Good science is skeptical.

Much like  David Hume once remarked that we only believe that the sun will rise tomorrow out of convenience and expediency, true science helps us make sense of what we’ve observed to date, but acknowledges that new facts may soon come to light.

Let’s take two of the most well established scientific theories:  Darwin’s natural selection and Einstein’s relativity.  Have they been proven?  Of course not!  They are, however, consistent with existing data and help us do useful things, like create modern antibiotics, nuclear energy and GPS devices.  As best as we can tell, they are true, but new facts might still come to light..

Nevertheless, every time we take our child to the doctor, turn on a light powered by a nuclear reactor or drive to a friends house using a navigation device, we are implicitly believing in these theories.   Practical people understand that we have to act on knowledge that remains incomplete.

The Myth of Scientific Marketing

Marketing, of course, is largely a pseudoscientific field.  We have plenty of ideas, gather lots of data and then spend a ton of money.  Of course, before the money is spent, somebody will always want “proof” that it will work, which, of course, we can never give.

It is no wonder then that many fall prey to the myth of scientific marketing.  In their quest to be proven right, they make up useless rules, invent numbers they don’t understand and then create power point charts of infinite complexity, all in the misguided hope that any of this will create certainty.

However, good science is full of uncertainty and so is good marketing.    We’re muddling through.  We come up with ideas, see if they work and then move on, hopefully having learned something in the process.  Sometimes, we have a high degree of confidence, other times we’re shooting in the dark.  We don’t seek eternal truths, nor should we.

After all, the marketing world, unlike the physical world, is constantly changing.  In fact, it changes reflexively, so the more successful a strategy is, the less likely it is to work as well next time.  The data point we most often miss is ourselves.

How To Be Scientific

Many hardnosed business people are fond of demanding, “show me the numbers,” in the misguided belief that numbers will prove something.  In truth, we’re much better served by looking for what will disprove a notion than what will prove it.  Then, at least, we can change course when facts turn against us.

John Steen brings this point home in a wonderful post at the Innovation Leadership Network blog.  He says that “Overconfidence created by prior success leads to diversification into different products and countries where the model for success may not be valid.”

Being scientific entails accepting that you can always be wrong, even if experience suggest otherwise.

Enron and the recent financial crises have showed us that even successful ideas can, when taken too far, can produce bad results.  All swans are white until you see a black one and all turkeys are happy until Thanksgiving day.  Dismiss that simple truth and you will eventually pay a price.

As Feynman wisely said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”

– Greg

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Katya Voropayeva permalink
    July 17, 2011

    Good point! Some people, however, prefer a nice lie instead of ugly truth, and it often becomes a problem when such people occupy top positions in the company.

    Just a couple of weeks ago was accused of incometence by CFO for saying that I don’t really know what kind of web site we gonna be launching in 2014 (in fact I’m not 100% sure that we gonna be launching any in 2014 but don’t tell anyone 😉 )

  2. July 17, 2011

    Thanks Katya, brings home Hume’s point of knowing whether the sun will rise tomorrow:-)

    – Greg

  3. October 18, 2012

    Interesting post!

    As I see it marketing and branding aren’t math problems (they can’t be proven). They’re social challenges (we can learn from other successes and failures). However, they’re are principles that effect the outcome such as supply and demand.

    The sad truth is that all too often marketers mistake correlation for causation.

    EX: Drowning deaths increase as ice cream sales increase. Therefore, ice cream consumption causes drowning.

    Of course this overlooks the fact that Ice cream sales increase on hot days as does the number of people likely to be swimming.

    I must add that neuroscience is just that, a science and it can greatly impact the efficacy of a brand.


    Mark Gallagher
    Brand Expressionist®

  4. October 18, 2012

    All very true. Thanks Mark!

    – Greg

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS