Seth: Are you a scientist?

Are you a scientist?

Ask a physicist what will happen if you fire a projectile like this in that direction, and she’ll know. Ask a chemist what happens if you mix x and y, and you’ll get the right answer. Even quantum mechanics mechanics can give you probabilities that work out in the long run.

I’m not always the biggest fan of Seth Godin’s brand of “crackerjack marketing” – for my taste it generally lacks the subtlety and nuance that paints life in anything other than primary colors 1– but I do have to admit that most of his observations are sound, at least in the broad strokes.

As someone who spent the better part of his life as a scientist, I can tell you that while Seth’s observation might be technically right, it does lack the subtlety of insight.  Scientists spend vast tracts of time testing and observing the world, and only after gathering, collating, and interpreting the data do they build hypotheses of how the world works.

Scientists make predictions, and predicting the future is far more valuable than explaining the past.

In reality, scientists predict the future by explaining the past.  And to be fair, they don’t so much “predict the future” as tell you what would be consistent with past observations.

But buried somewhere here is a lesson, whether you’re in science, marketing, or any other knowledge worker driven field: future insights are only as good as the summation of your past observances.  It is, at times, attractively expedient2 to rely on “key thought leaders in the field”3 to generate your “insights” rather than a full-fledged primary marketing research study.  We can’t do large-scale marketing research studies, the argument goes, because we don’t have the budget.

But ask yourself this question: what’s more expensive – fielding and executing a good primary marketing research study, or better on a product that only a small handful of people will like?

Or as I’ve heard said before, The plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘evidence’.”4


  1. I know there are a great many “Seth-heads” out there. Please understand that I’m in no way saying that being a “Seth-head” is wrong, only that he doesn’t suite my taste. It would be a shame if the only thing you took from this article was this comment about Seth, as I’m trying to address a larger point, which you’ll hopefully see below.
  2. READ: Cheap and fast.
  3. READ: A few good customers.
  4. I can’t seem to find the original source of this quote, so I’ll link to where I first remember hearing it. It now graces a crude printed sign hanging on my own cubicle wall.
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