• Stephen McCarron

Hiding behind the science

‘We’re being led by the science’ is a mantra we’ve all become pretty familiar with over the last few months.

It’s a cunning trick which has increasingly worn thin as the government has limped cautiously through lockdown. Like a blindman with a stick, the government increasingly appears unable to judge where the next pothole is lurking.

But we can see why they have hidden behind this mantra.

Science is comforting, it infers certainty. That feeling of being in control is a foundation of human psychological stability. We all crave it – it is a fundamental human need.

But not all science confers absolute certainty.

Let’s distinguish between 2 types of science:

On the one hand there are Hard Sciences. These sciences are subject to law-like rules, where variables can be broken down and measured with certainty. For example, Newtonian physics is a Hard Science because it is measurable and predictable. If you measure things like Mass and Acceleration you can accurately predict Force.

On the other hand there are Soft Sciences, such as marketing and economics. In marketing the variables are simply too manifold and complex to enable accurate modelling, and to control all the inputs of data. The variables are vast and uncontainable including human behaviour, social and cultural factors, technological factors, geopolitics as well as natural events such as the weather. All of these make outcomes in the Soft Sciences almost impossible to predict.

Take the recent launch in April of the $1.74bn backed TV app for mobiles – Quibi. Despite the A-list talent list from Spielberg to Jenifer Lopez, most people haven’t heard of it. It’s the baby of Dreamwork’s co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg – former boss of Paramount and Disney. He knows his onions. But will it take off? Your guess is as good as mine, but I’m not rushing out to buy shares.

With Soft Sciences we’re in the business of making judgements based on the data. However, there is a scientific method for enhancing the probability that these judgements will be accurate. This method involves using rigour and analysis in order to understand what has happened in the past, and what is happening now. It then uses this understanding in order to generate hypotheses for action. The next step is to test these hypotheses through well designed measurement. The results of these experiments enable us to revisit and refine the hypotheses so that the body of knowledge increases as well as the effectiveness of future actions. This scientific method involves a progressive cycle of analysis / hypotheses/ test /learn, and back to the start again.

In marketing, we can apply this method using our tools of data analysis, consumer research, and the accumulated body of understanding around what works and what doesn’t. Marketers can also measure effect through sales, and behavioural and attitudinal data, which enables them to understand what is working, so that new hypotheses and more effective actions can be generated for next time. At is best, marketing is a model of great Soft Science in action – applying the method of analysis /hypothesis/test /learn.

Like marketing, epidemiology is really a Soft Science. It is fraught with the same difficulties when attempting accurate predictions. This is because virus transmission is also entangled within this complex web of humanity. That’s why our hitherto best thinker, Neil Ferguson, is famous for getting things wrong (making hugely in accurate predictions around the impact of foot and mouth, mad cow, bird flu). That’s not because he’s bad at his job (by all accounts, he’s the best in his business), it’s because he is asked to do the impossible – making the unpredictable predictable.

Therefore, I believe that in this crisis, the government needs to adopt Soft Science principles when making decisions with respect to managing the virus.

The government needs to step up to the plate, and take responsibility for the tough decisions which need to be made.

At the start of this epidemic the government imposed a blanket shutdown, it didn’t know enough about the virus, how it spreads, and who was most at risk, to do anything but impose a damage-limiting, one size fits all approach.

Now, however, it has learnt much about the virus. For example, the virus is less likely to pose a serious risk to under 45s, a third of all who have died have had diabetes, 75% of ICU cases have involved people who are overweight. We’ve learnt a lot. However, the government appears paralysed by fear and uncertainty around how to evolve policy, and open up the lockdown.

It is doing this whilst claiming that is being led by the science.

Now is the time to stop pretending it is being led by the science, and to take responsibility for making leadership decisions which are informed by science. It needs to adopt the principles of Soft Science, by being rigorous in analysis, making informed and intelligent decisions, and being agile. Above all, it needs to take ownership and responsibility for the tough decisions that lie ahead.

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