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December 19, 2005

The Science of Market Research Turns On Science

Market research is a social science as opposed to natural science. Market research, when done well, uses the scientific approaches of sociology, anthropology, psychology, political science, linguistics and more to identify, characterize, understand, respond to and, yes, shape human belief and behavior.

Like other social sciences, market research operates with less elegance than natural science. It is tougher work because subject to more doubt and uncertainty. Still, top executives in thousands of companies across the land authorize (cumulatively) billions of dollars and tens of thousands of person hours in market research -- all with a view to fulfilling visions of growth and performance.

It's been five decades or more since folks in corporations figured out that scientifically sound approaches to understanding markets could and would generate innovation as well as promotion that, in turn, could support growth. The science of market research is as much embedded in our market economy as the profit motive.

Given all that rides on the scientific soundness of their research, marketing and other functionaries must beware of coming into a meeting with the Chief Executive, Chief Marketing Officer and other C-suite denizens with shoddy work.

Yes, it's critical for the researchers to understand the vision, mission and strategy of the company and to do their research with a view to promoting performance and growth. But, it's the rare CEO who encourages and welcomes ideology completely bereft of facts and sound method. Executives whose interests suffer from market research findings will argue against those findings. But, debating such results is a far cry from an ideological drive to eliminate market research itself. Where would be the gain in that? Yes, you might -- in theory, but rarely in practice -- gain your point and advance to the top job. But once you had a board and financial markets demanding growth, what would you do? Reinstitute the science of market research that you so assiduously destroyed?

Again, yes, there are soft aspects to market research and yes, there are debates guided more by self-interest than fact or logic. But, still, look at the pattern of dependable and predictable belief and behavior in companies across the land: a huge investment and reliance on the science of market research.

Science.

Now, what does the science of market research tell those who seek to gain and hold governmental office?

According to Chris Mooney's new book, market research has guided those currently in control of the Republican Party to promote an attack on science as a means of generating votes and attaining, holding and using elective office.

With regard to climate change, biodiversity, contraception, drug abuse, air and water pollution, missile defense, evolution and other high profile matters, market research of likely voters has evidently indicated that elections can be won by throwing the entire edifice of science into doubt -- in effect, destroying science in order to gain power.

The recent results of this market research are impressive. Elections have been won. Authority over governmental policy has been gained. That authority has been used to further the erosion of the public's faith and trust in science (that's right: 'faith and trust').

The medium-to-longer term effects of this market research, however, are troubling. Again, in a corporation dependent upon scientifically sound market reserach for growth, innovation and sustainable performance, high level attacks on the foundational soundness of such research would, at best, generate short term gains -- and those gains would be measured only in terms of the internal political power of those leading the attacks. In the medium-to-long term, there could be only two results: either the destruction of further growth, innovation and performance because the attackers who gain power refuse to shift course -- or, a period of confusion, fear and anxiety as those with sound, scientific market research skills and expertise try to adjust to their former attackers now claiming to seek their help.

Among the many potentially tragic aspects of using scientifically sound market research to destroy scientific soundness is this: CEOs and others whose company performance depends on scientific market research disproportionately contribute money and other resources to those taking the lead in the desctruction of science.

These CEOs and others, of course, can change course. They have tremendous power to determine who controls the Republican Party and whether that Party's policy will continue to pursue the attacks on science that, ultimately, will destroy the soundness of the Party's own market research.

As they sit in discussions with those in power, let us hope the CEOs and others will think through the implications in a manner consistent with what they'd do in their own companies. Yes, there are undoubtedly many opportunities for short term gain in terms of tax and regulatory policy by supporting the attack on science. But, even with such gains, the medium-to-long term prospects in a 'science-less' economy and society for the performance of these CEOs' companies -- not to mention their children and grandchildren -- are dim.

Posted by Doug Smith on December 19, 2005 01:58 PM | Permalink

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