Monday, 7 November 2011

Editorial: Pop Science Books

Reg Baker in his inevitable style posted a wonderfully forthright blog piece (click here to read) bemoaning the industries taste in books, pointing out that a great majority of the books in the list of nominees for the books that had the most transformative impact on market research were Popular Science and highlighted how unscientific some of these types of books are, championing potentially totally bogus theories that have not been subjected to proper scientific scrutiny. 

Now I can total understand his emotional reaction to this. I have exactly the same response when I go into health food shops and see all homoeopathic remedies on the shelf and am horrified that they can get away with their often totally bogus healing claims that have not been subjected to any rigorous medical trials.

But I have a few points on this that I thought I would share:

1. Books are not apples:  and in most cases not in the class of homoeopathic style remedies, one or two bad ones do not rot the whole crop.  Whilst there are some very bad pop science books, there are also some really brilliant ones that help, as Tom Ewing has pointed out, eloquently digest and explain often very complex subject matter in a clear and understandable way. To draw over riding conclusions about pop science books on the bases of analysis of parts of the sample is in itself is bad science.

2. We can learn things from all types of books:  I think reading pop science books is as important as reading more serious business books and as is in fact being open to read anything from any source. To be closed to one genre of books is like gathering research from an unbiased sample.   I am a believer in the wisdom of the crowd and any business book bogus or not that says reaches the New York Times best seller bogus or not, I would want to read almost on principal to find out what thoughts and ideas people find so interesting.  Its not to say you cannot read these with a critical mind.  What is more just because something is packaged up as a light read does not make it a bad thing.  It like a classical musician dismissing all pop music as rubbish and not listening to it - they would be missing some great tunes and conceptual musical ideas.

3. MR is a branch of pop science:  We in Market research are all actually in business of conducting "popular science".  Market Research is in theory a branch of science but very rarely do we adhere to the rigorous standards that scientist need to adhere to where conducting proper scientific research.  Who for example has ever conducted a double blind trial as part of a market research experiment? Next to nobody.  Who puts up all their raw data from their experiments up for peer review? Next to nobody.  Have I ever read an MR paper that would stand up to a rigorous scientific review?  Well yes, but not the vast majority and (certainly not any of the ones I have written I am afraid!).  

4. This type of debate is important:  So it is easy to take a pop at what Reg has written. But I would seriously encourage Reg to keep writing these types of posts. Without Reg Baker the MR industry would be woefully short of serious internal detractors and we need them.  Despite what we think, that we are all firing pops at each other in the MR industry,  very few people actually have the courage to stand up and hold something to account which is essentially what Reg is trying to do here.   

5. Science and commerce play by totally different rules: The reason is we are operating in a commercial environment where the market decides on whether something is right on wrong true or false not science.  We are all out peddling snake oil on one level or another and the once that can do it most successfully are hailed as kings.  Be it a company putting water in a bottle and selling it as a remedy or Apple packing up a few computer chips in nice wrapping and selling them for a lot more than their inherent value all commerce is a form of "deception of the truth", selling something for more than its inherent value or actual worth. As market researchers we are often called upon to work out what truths and falsehoods we can get away with, what deceptions will fly.  So for our industry to be respected we have to ensure we do try to re-enforce the types of standards that Reg Baker with every fiber of his being is trying to espouse.  

What Reg Baker is simply asking us to be is more scientific in our approach which I hail. 

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