Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Richard Feynman, the celebration of doubt, and some horribly clunky and tenuous parallels with consumer research

Richard Feynman is the scientists' scientist. He was one of the greatest physicists of all time (seventh in Physics World's 1999 poll, behind Einstein, Newton, Maxwell, Bohr, Heisenberg and Galileo) - brilliantly explaining the relationship between photons and electrons in a fundamental area of particle physics called quantum electrodynamics which he basically invented. His squiggly pictures, now known as Feynman diagrams, can help explain complicated particle interactions in a non-mathematical way to the extent that someone with only a basic knowledge of physics could understand them.

The Feynman diagrams were a classic example of what made him not just a boffin, but a great scientist and educator. Feynman's approaches and attitudes were second to none. One of the best £90s I ever spent was, as a student, when I splashed out for the Feynman Lectures on Physics. If any physics undergraduate (or even A-level student) happens to read this, do yourself a favour: the three volumes are utterly inspiring, although beware - his methods are frequently unorthodox and can sometimes become ferociously difficult. I had a love-hate relationship with physics, but keep coming back to the Lectures time and time again.

Feynman has always been a bit of a hero of mine, and so when the latest batch of books I ordered online plopped on the mat, rather than consigning The meaning of it all to the end of the rapidly expanding backlog, I gobbled it up over a couple of days on my commutes. It is a collection of three lectures he gave in 1963 on the relationship between science, religion and uncertainty. It's a slim volume, but essential reading whether you've made up your mind on metaphysical and ethical questions, or whether you have an open mind. In an era dominated by shouty shock-jocks like Richard Dawkins, Feynman's quiet reflections really do stand out. Furthermore, I'm convinced that his opinions will be relevant to commercial research of all sorts as well as pure scientific work.

The general thrust of Feynman's argument is a celebration of uncertainty. The claim that ignorance and uncertainty are not something to be ashamed of, but quite the opposite - an exciting problem fresh to be solved - is quite refreshing. He comes across as a pure scientist: tackling problems for the problems' sake, yet appreciative of the practical implications of scientific research. One aspect that it's enlightening to hear from the mouth of the great man is just how "unscientific" the scientific process can be: rather than "Eureka" moments, scientific research is an iterative process, slowly proving the old rules wrong; Sherlock Holmes knew what he was talking about when he said "Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth." Slowly building on established knowledge, confirming and disproving different strands by experiment (trial and error, if you like), is the way knowledge is furthered.

While Feynman, of course, is concerned primarily with things that can be measured and evaluated quantitatively (or even qualitatively), he makes the point that it's not only measurable aspects which are important:
But if a thing is not scientific, if it cannot be subjected to the test of observation, this does not mean that it is dead, or wrong, or stupid. We are not trying to argue that science is somehow good and that other things are somehow not good. Scientists take all those things that can be analysed by observation, and thus the things called science are found out. But there are some things left out, for which the method does not work. This does not mean that those things are unimportant. They are, in fact, in many ways the most important. In any decision for action, when you have to make up your mind what to do, there is always a "should" involved, and this cannot be worked out from "if I do this, what will happen?" alone. You say "Sure, you see what will happen, and then you decide whether you want it to happen or not." But that is the step the scientist cannot take. You can figure out what is going to happen, but then you have to decide whether you like it that way or not.
What of consumer research, then? To me, that implies that the business decisions which are made as the result of research still need to be bold ones, and that no matter how robust the research methodology itself may be, if the research brief is lousy or pointless then the research is wasted. Nothing new there then. But also that the research in itself might not be enough to show clearly whether the benefits of international expansion, or introducing a new product line, or scrapping dress-down Fridays, outweigh the side-effects. The research might demonstrate what the benefits and side-effects are, and even quantify them. But as for making that instinctive judgement? Market research's usefulness might be limited there. What Feynman is saying is that even from a scientist's point of view, that instinctive judgement isn't something to sniff at.

Having recently read Ben Goldacre's Bad Science, it occurs to me that there are a lot of parallels between the two - and can be summed up as "common sense". Objectivity. Looking for ways to disprove your work rather than proving it. These are basic groundrules.

More on uncertainty:
...doubt and uncertainty [are] important. I believe that [they] are of very great value, and extend beyond the sciences. I believe that to solve any problem that has never been solved before, you have to leave the door to the unknown ajar. You have to permit the possibility that you do not have it exactly right. Otherwise, if you have made up your mind already, you might not solve it.
Feynman is a pure scientist, through and through. He asserts that
work is not done for the sake of an application
which I agree with 100%. But, since I'm corrupting this post horribly with comparisons to commercial/consumer research which would probably horrify the great man, I'm not sure that I agree that this statement is true for market research. Sure, if MR and consumer research help boost the pool of knowledge surrounding consumer behaviour, then great. But while the foibles and complexities of consumer behaviour are undoubtedly fascinating (whether the research is conducted by market researchers or academic psychologists), the implications of its results are more important. Market research is definitely an applied science. A MR project is generally undertaken to fulfil a purpose - is that something to be ashamed of? It is a tool that provides insight into consumer behaviour and attitudes so that decisions can be made based on the findings. To paraphrase Feynman, the scientist (or market researcher) can provide the answers to questions like "what will happen if I do X?" or "what should I do in order to achieve Y?" Of course, whether Y is a desirable outcome or not, is outside the researcher's remit, and only the decision-maker can tell. But it's the transition from pure research to marketing applications that is where research is so exciting, for me.
To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven. The same key opens the gates of hell.
That sounds like the sort of thing one of those "inspirational" business blogger "gurus" like Seth Godin might say. It wasn't. It was something a Buddhist monk once told Feynman, who, rather than making a sweeping statement based on it, interprets it in the context of ethics: top-level scientists have the capability to do something really dangerous with their expertise. Feynman should know: he worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos.

He says that whilst making vague claims is next to useless, making bold assertions, which can then be proved either wrong, or correct until proven wrong (as with Newton's laws) is the way to go about scientific research:
The more specific a rule is, the more powerful it is, the more liable it is to exceptions, and the more interesting and valuable it is to check...doubt is not a fearful thing, but a thing of very great value.
More generally, he lauds risktaking in research, saying that with such risks, reputations may be put on the line, but the greatest discoveries are made.
...you must be willing to stick your neck out...make a specific rule and see if it falls through the sieve.
The risk, of course, is that you are barking up the wrong tree completely. The parallels with the commercial world are obvious. Those researchers who try an outlandish methodology, or make a bold hypothesis, might end up getting nowhere. All kinds of agencies are experimenting with neuroscience, text analysis, eye tracking and all sorts of techniques with varying levels of sophistication. They sound sexy and therefore generate coverage (and thus sales), although there are a lot of sceptics who doubt the value of such techniques, particularly as, given their youth, by the sounds of things many of them are doing little more than floundering around in the dark.

I would argue, however, that is is the duty of big brands to invest in risky research - to invest in a hypothesis or methodology that could be badly flawed and provide zero ROI. But the likes of Unilever, Coca-Cola and Nike can afford to take such risks once in a while, and if the gamble pays off, that new methodology might give them deep consumer insight which rapidly gives them ROI and an edge over the competition. Perhaps more importantly, they should feel compelled to make these contributions to marketing, because brands as a whole may be able to benefit from the latest techniques in neuroscience, say, that would be too expensive for smaller companies to invest speculatively. Of course, this would rely on providers not flogging dud research.

Yet to invoke the spirit of Feynman requires that little spark, that little wow factor. There are plenty of case studies out there at the moment which just make you sit up and take notice. One example is this from Brainjuicer's John Kearon:

Crumbs. I don't know where to start with that one. Maybe it deserves another piece in itself.

The other piece of research, and this is something that REALLY made me sit up and take notice, was an academic study by researchers from Indiana University, entitled Twitter mood predicts the stock market. I've read the paper in full and will write a piece shortly - until then, if your imagination is running riot and you can't bear to wait, have a look at Wired who have covered it.

These analogies are horrible, I know, but I'm reading a lot about MR developments at the moment so forgive me for making comparisons.

And so to religion. Dawkins and his crew have made a lot of noise in the last few years with dismissive sweeping statements (the same, of course, can be said about the religious right). Feynman (who, let me reiterate, was one of the greatest scientists of all time) doesn't mince his words.
I agree that science cannot disprove the existence of God. I absolutely agree...belief in God and action in science [are] consistent.
For someone so mild, cannot is a strong word. It's a bold claim, an absolute claim. (It's also something I happen to agree with, but who am I to comment on the great man's veracity). He describes the wonder of seeing the mysteries of the universe come alive as
an experience which is very rare, and exciting
A young scientist, Feynman continues, may find
the religion of his church" inadequate to describe that kind of experience. The God of his church isn't big enough. Perhaps.
And the walls of belief might start to crumble. But at the same time, he argues that people who are not religious, by and large, share the same values as religious people:
It seems to me that there is a kind of independence between the ethical and moral views, and the theory of the universe.
Feynman splits religious thought into three: metaphysics, ethics, and inspiration. On the metaphysical aspect, he argues that scientific beliefs are perhaps less strong than religious ones (the principles of dogma and infallibility spring to mind here). Meanwhile
the uncertainity that is necessary in order to appreciate nature is not easily correlated with the feeling of certainty in faith, which is usually associated with deep religious belief.
 This goes contrary to conventional wisdom, which says that it is science which provides absolute answers, and religion which leaves questions unanswered.

Feynman died in 1988 but the most obvious as yet unanswered question which still lingers regards the origin of the universe. As science and technology become ever more sophisticated, we know what happened closer and closer to the Big Bang. Minutes, seconds, tenths of seconds, millionths of seconds...we're not that far away from having a pretty good idea of what the universe looked like at one Planck time after the Big Bang (which I don't have time to explain...ho ho). But as for the Big Bang itself? All analyses seem lead to a singularity (infinity or impossibility if you will) - something which we cannot measure, cannot decipher, and it seems as likely as ever that it will be something that we can never understand. And what is so wrong with that?

Richard Feynman - what a hero.

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