“We were just following the science”

posted in: Politics | 0

I say this with no pleasure but it’s hard to see a single Covid related policy decision the UK government got right. Yes we will have to wait until there is full inquiry, until the full cycle of the pandemic has passed but it seems highly unlikely the UK will be judged to have done a good job. “Just following the science” sounds like a Nuremberg defense and I doubt it will be any more effective now than it was then.  

The mistakes at the outset, February/March, are easier to understand and forgive. With the exception of some Asian countries who had their experience of the SARS/MERS epidemics to fall back on, most of the world was caught flat footed by Covid 19. It was seen as closer to flu than SARS and by the time this mistake was realized, rammed home by the pictures  coming from Italy of bodies piling up at overrun hospitals, it was all too little, too late – on PPE, protecting the vulnerable, testing.

Social distancing began in a lot of places earlier than the official lock down in late March. Some individuals and organizations had already started to take sensible protective measures and the latest research from Bristol University suggests that it’s this, rather than the  draconian house arrest that followed, that accounts for the peak in deaths being passed in early April. It seems very likely that lock-down will prove to have come too late and that it was largely ineffective and pointless. Sensible hygiene and physical distancing were all that were needed but hindsight and all that, no blame in being overly cautious if you admit to having been overly complacent.

However, the mistakes that followed in the run up to “peak confusion” are less easy to forgive:-

  • Don’t wear masks – wear masks
  • No visitor quarantine – 2 weeks quarantine
  • 2 metres – 1 metre
  • Shield the care homes – send them untested Covid patients
  • Follow the rules – use your common sense
  • Stay home – go back to work

Today, almost mid-June, the plan to reopen schools is in tatters. A lack of co-operation on the part of some involved might be a cause of this but that lack of cooperation comes from a lack of confidence in a government that seems anything but sure footed. It may also be a resumption of politics as usual but that’s not surprising if the government is in disarray.

Yet another minister is trotted out for the media to defend not just the actions in his or her bailiwick but for the whole of cabinet; the face changes but the answer to any criticism remains the same, “At every stage we have followed the scientific advice”. Every minister seems to be the ‘Minister for Defense’ and the defense is always the same. Unfortunately it has more holes in it than swiss cheese.

It is blindingly clear that scientists do not all agree – so the question is which science did you follow and how did you choose? Clearly they followed the wrong science and /or the scientists that got it wrong, one of whom was Neil Ferguson who to his credit has now admitted his model was flawed, his estimates too high and that lock-down came too late, a decision he thinks accounts for 50% of the deaths.

In the absence of hard empirical data the science is just expert advice – and as Margaret Thatcher said, advisors advise, ministers decide. It is an abject dereliction of duty to just follow expert advice. All such advice is based on risk assessment and a scientist will not make a fully informed risk assessment otherwise we’d all be driving at 30 mph maximum, eating no sugar or salt and drinking virtually no alcohol. Maybe we should or maybe we want some freedom to choose, the liberty to do our own risk assessment.

Einstein pointed out that imagination is more important than scientific knowledge. The expert advice needed to be taken in the context of an imaginative vision for what success would look like. No such vision is apparent unless it was to ‘flatten the sombrero’ and make sure no blame could be attached to the government. We will regret that it was not braver, accepting that there would be deaths but balancing that with what is in the best interests of the majority and the preservation of our way of life as we normally do in a war. (Note; it was Boris and the government who used the war rhetoric so they have to accept the criteria).

I heard a scientist on the radio today (cannot recall his name but he advises SAGE) saying he had only two expectations – that his advice was heard and that it was understood. He had no expectations that it had to be followed since he fully accepted other advice and other factors needed to be taken into account in making policy decisions. Well said.

So not even the scientists think “we followed the science” is an acceptable defense.

That said, Scientists are better than politicians in a crisis. They will say what they think and do not regard peer review or admitting mistakes as a sign of weakness, quite the opposite. They see it as good science. Politicians deflect and obfuscate because, in the face of a hostile media, admitting mistakes and U-turns are political suicide. But is that true in a crisis? I’d like to have seen more business people involved – they know how to make decisions on imperfect information, how to make trade-offs and manage risk. They know how to work with experts with respect yet not afraid to challenge their assumptions and therefore their conclusions. Business people can take and then ignore advice in the pursuit of agreed goals. Meritocracy and performance (mostly) got them to their position, not votes. If they make a bad mistake or too many mistakes they stand down or get fired – they don’t get to hide behind advisors because they choose their advisors and what advice to take.

I think the UK government should not wait for an inquiry. They should admit they have made mistakes and take full responsibility, only that will restore some confidence. They behave as if the opposite is true, admitting mistakes will undermine not just confidence but adherence to their advice and plans going forward. Is that them just behaving like self-serving politicians normally do? Perhaps but I have another theory.

I believe they’re following the advice of behavioural scientists as they have explicitly said they’ve been doing throughout. SAGE includes behavioural scientists and it seems like they have a loud voice.

I have nothing to back up what I am about to say – yet – but I think the advice of behavioural scientists will be shown to be every bit as wrong and damaging as the advice of the Ferguson and the Imperial Team. Ferguson has now publicly said that the lock-down came one week too late and insodoing cost 50% of the deaths (let’s just say a lot, we know Neil and his numbers). Why were the government so reluctant to close the borders, ban any mass gatherings and confine as many as possible to staying at home? Because the behavioural scientists told them that it would be hard to impose a lock down and people would only put up with it for a few weeks. Go too soon and you risked people breaking lock down precisely when it was most needed.

Plum wrong. It proved relatively easy to impose the lock down and is now proving enormously hard to lift it and get back to some kind of normality.   A U-Gov survey showing that the majority of people felt no worse off under lock down and nearly a quarter felt better off might explain this. Add in the effect of the fear mantra – “Stay home, Save Live” – and it’s not just the benefit of hindsight. This could and should have been forseen.

This mistake will most likely be the cause of the biggest economic depression since 1928, possibly ever, with the UK set to be the hardest hit because we are so slow to relax the restrictions that make normal economic activity (and education) near impossible. And economic depressions cause illness and death – fact.

Is it fair to be so hard on the behavioural scientists? Time will tell. But in any event the blame will lie with the government not their scientific advisors.

The 2015 General Election – The End Of Market Research As We Know It?

posted in: Politics | 0

I am going to try to avoid politics altogether, both the result and the electoral system which delivered it, since this has no place in our politically neutral Marketing Society. At least I’ll try my best, because what I really want to focus on is why the opinion polls got it wrong. This is very important because the election polls are not only the most visible and engaging form of market research for the nation as a whole, they are also highly influential on how most senior business people, those who are not career marketers, view market research. Putting it bluntly, if opinion polls can get it so wrong how can you trust any market research?

This happened in 1992. The opinion polls were predicting a clear win for Labour led by Neil Kinnock and as we know the result was a resounding triumph for John Major and the Tories. There was indeed a strong move to Labour who picked up 42 seats from a 3.6% swing in votes. The Conservatives lost 40 seats (compared to Thatcher’s landslide win in 1987) but they secured 14.1 million votes, 41.9% of a high turnout of voters, enough to give them 336 seats, a big majority. The real losers were the LibDems under Paddy Ashdown, who lost 20 seats and retained only 22. Sound familiar? So will this. The two issues of the election were the economy, we were in a recession, and immigration. The Tories campaigned on both issues with scare stories about high taxation, high inflation and “opening the floodgates to immigrants”, under Kinnock’s Labour party. It worked. There was the infamous gaff of Kinnock arriving in Presidential style to a pre-election Labour rally, then tripping over and falling into the sea the following day. John Major went round the country with a little wooden soap-box, and the Sun newspaper apparently won it with their high profile support for the Conservatives. So was it the policies, the fear factor, Kinnock looking a bit pompous and accident prone, Major looking like a decent guy, the support of Murdoch’s press? Who knows – all of the above – but the fact is that opinion polls spectacularly got it wrong, and did so right up to the moment real votes were cast.

I can remember clearly in the months that followed the 1992 election being in meetings and presenting market research data to support some recommendation or other and seeing the cynical look on the faces of the non-marketers in the room. Some of them came right out and said it – “Yes, but market research said Labour would win”.

I predict this will happen again. Research clearly tells us that the green pack is preferred. Yes and research told us emphatically that it would be a hung parliament. So, my fellow marketers, all of whom will want to continue using market research to inform decision-making, you better get your arguments together. And I want to help you, even though part of me is celebrating the end of market research as we know it. Even though I do regard 99.9% of market research as another “higher form of ignorance” (see my recent post).

Back in 1992 we used the following arguments. The polls did not ask the right question. They asked which party you would vote for, not which leader you prefer and which policies are most important to you. Overall the polls showed that the majority of people thought they would vote Labour, but they also thought Kinnock was a bit of a pillock and they did not trust Labour with the economy or immigration. That is what actually drove where they cast their vote in the secrecy of the polling booth. Opinion polls in the USA are more accurate because their electoral system separates party preference from Presidential choice. Any anyway, you should never use quant research on its own, focus groups would have told you that claimed voting intentions masked an underlying lack of confidence in Labour and their leader among the key socio-demographic groups Labour needed to win over to secure a victory.

The same arguments can be applied to this last election – even the same issues and the same groups. Let me illustrate this with the purest form of qualitative research. I met up with an old colleague, a middle class Northerner and lifelong Labour supporter, just a week before the election. Let’s call him Tony. For Tony, support for Labour is visceral, he admitted that. He could never imagine not voting Labour. I did not try to dissuade him, I simply said, “Miliband, Balls, SNP, fragile economic recovery, really, I mean really?” I promise you, he gave out a long sigh. Yes, he said, I guess you’re right. No idea how he actually voted but you get my point. Party allegiance is not the same as your actual vote when you consider the real issues and the real options, and as you wrestle with the reality of our electoral system. You are not just casting your vote for your local MP, you are also casting your vote for who governs the country in a first-past-the-post system. That alone makes a fool of Opinion Polls – and yes, I am aware that Lord Ashcroft and his team developed a way of asking the questions that separated the local MP choice from the national choice but it didn’t work did it? His final poll put Labour and Conservatives both on 33% and he was publicly saying a hung parliament was by far the most likely outcome.

So let’s summarise – market research is fine but a) you’ve got to ask the right questions b) you’ve got to segment the respondents and c) you have to use quant and qual to get the full picture. Right? Wrong. You have to accept that 99.9% (that is statistically significant by the way) of all market research never gives you the full picture and will never reliably predict outcomes for one very important reason. Humans. It fails to take account of the human condition, our genetic programming and how the brain actually works.

Not only do we not know what we think, we do not know how we think. So how can any question posed in a market research context ever predict or even fully explain anything?

I could elaborate but time’s up (I have a word count limit I have to stick to). So let me just close by saying the 2015 Election should be the end of market research as we know it, and good riddance. It should now be the age of market intelligence.