Theories and laws
In my post about data, ‘The Key to All Mythologies’, I talked a bit about Gregory Treverton and Malcolm Gladwell’s distinction between puzzles and mysteries, and how we should be using it to help us identify what type of problem we’re solving, and hence how to go about solving it.
Today, I’d like to introduce another useful distinction, this one drawn from the world of science, which can help us deal with some of the uncertainty we find ourselves in the midst of.
That distinction is between theories and laws.
An example. Gravity. The law of gravity is well established. First formulated by Newton (the equation at the top of this post) and subsequently refined by Einstein, the law of gravity basically describes the force that attracts objects to each other. Such is our understanding of this phenomenon that we are able to describe, with extraordinary precision, the effects of gravity. Yet despite this descriptive accuracy, the law of gravity contains no word of explanation. We can describe gravity, but we are utterly unable to explain it. For this we need a theory of gravity. There are quite a few. But none are accepted. Indeed none can yet be accepted as we don’t yet have sufficient data or information to allow us to do so.
This, then, is the difference between a law and a theory. A law describes, a theory explains. To derive a law you need data, but to derive a theory you need insight. This is, essentially, the scientific method. How these two things work together. You come up with a theory, collect data to test it, which causes you to accept, reject or more often, refine your theory. And so on.
OK, so what has this got to do with us? Well, I think too often we forget this cycle and end up deriving laws without theories or, even more perniciously, theories without laws.
It seems hardly a week goes by without the publication of a new theory of communication. Now this whole phenomenon is probably deserving of a whole post in its own right, but suffice to say that I’m usually pretty suspicious of these ‘theories’, not least because they usually seem to have very little evidential substance to back them up. The best we usually get is a couple of anecdotes about successful campaigns that then get blown out into full-scale theories about the new model of communication. As Roger Brinner famously pointed out ‘the plural of anecdote is not data’. Sometimes we don’t even get this meagre fayre, and our intrepid theorists descend into the usual cliché ridden hand waving about ‘engagement’, ‘conversations’, and how agencies/brands/gen x-ers/media people ‘just don’t get it’.
These are the opposite of gravity, which is a law without a theory. They are theories without laws. A helpful analogy here would be astrology. Astrology has a theory – that different personalities, and paths through life, can be explained by alignment of certain celestial bodies at that person’s birth. However, it seems spectacularly unable to convert this theory into a set of laws that proceed from it. Indeed, when they try, they are shown to be wrong.
A cautionary tale is here offered by Alan Sokal’s famous academic hoax on those arch-theorists, the ‘post-modernists’, who were left looking spectacularly silly when it transpired that they couldn’t distinguish serious scholarship from meaningless gibberish when reviewing academic papers. Let’s not go down the same path. If you can’t tell what exactly the author is getting at when you’re reading their stuff, maybe they’re not being profound. Maybe they’re not saying anything at all.
That all said, let’s not go the other way – laws without theories – the other reaction to where we are today. The belief that if we just have enough data, enough numbers, then everything will be ‘optimisable’. And we just keep getting 5% better at doing the wrong thing. Too often we put our faith in sophisticated analysis and modelling that essentially tell us whether something works, but not why it works. In fact, often we don’t even see the need to ask why. It’s taken as self-explanatory. I advertise, sales go up. Who needs to understand why? It’s just true. Ok, but one day soon, it may not be, or at least not quite as true as it was. If we don’t try to explain why, we’ll just keep getting better and better at doing the wrong thing. That didn’t work out too well for Kodak.
So think about the why. Hypothesise, theorise, create, imagine. But when you’ve done all those things, be cautious. Don’t pronounce. Go out and test. Prove your theory. Because even if you turn out to be wrong, you’ll be left with a better theory in its place.