Seth Godin posts today about people making bad decisions based on a lack of scientific thinking. I agree with much of what Seth posits but makes some comments I consider demeaning to the public. Further, he wanders from ‘scientific’ into political. When we start basing decisions on a particular political dogma and ignore real science, the trouble goes from silly to dangerous.

Not to be critical of Seth, but I have a science background and want to encourage real scientific thinking.

He starts by saying:

“Many people buy a car (probably their single biggest discretionary purchase) based on slamming a door, kicking a tire and judging the handshake of a salesperson.

We choose a surgeon based on the carpeting in his office and a politician by his hair cut.”

“Many” is pretty vague term and I’m sure enough people buy cars based on irrational reasons to number them as “many”. However, there is an implication that many means most, and with that I do not agree.

Some buy based on the limitation of finance. Period. That’s as much research as they can apply. If they can get the car, they buy the car. And some will buy because they like the car. But in the day of instant information, many people, you may infer most, do some online research.

But the post gets downright insulting to say “we” choose a surgeon based on the carpeting in his office or a politician by his haircut”. (Side note: Read Seth’s past posts. He always goes out of his way to use the feminine pronoun or possessive  forms “she” and “her” but the surgeon and politician are male. I suspect much of Sarah Palin’s appeal is appearance based. It’s certainly not intellectual. I always use the grammatically correct to date male forms.)

I don’t know anyone who has made a choice of surgeon based on the carpet in his office.

He then goes on to criticize parents who are leery of having their kids get swine flu (let’s call it H1N1) vaccines. He deprecates these parents for what he considers baseless fear: “No mention of longitudinal studies or long-term side effects. No science at all, really, just rumors and hunches and gut instincts.” Sorry Seth, but the H1N1 vaccine was developed in weeks, produced in months and rushed to market with little testing of safety or efficacy. The first polio vaccine killed tens of thousands of kids.

We cannot predict the long tern consequences of accumulated influenza vaccines because have no long term studies.

There was great uncertainty about whether the H1N1 vaccine would even work when the first doses became available.  Remember the discussion? Will we need one shot or two? No one knew.

I would not say the parents who made the decision not give their kids H1N1 vaccine were unscientific. The science wasn’t there. With each passing day, we gain a little more data.

By the way, I favor getting the vaccine.

But let’s get back to the scientific method. If you want to make decisions based on science, and it’s a good idea to do that, then you need to understand how to do so.

In science, for a statement to be true, it has to predict an outcome with certain reliability. For example, saying the H1N1 vaccine is safe would mean there are no possible (known) side effects or dangers to anyone taking the vaccine. Well, we know that isn’t true. But are the small number of people who have experienced negative reactions sufficient reason to avoid a treatment that we are fairly certain works? That is, if 1 in 10,000 people have a bad reaction to the vaccine, and 99 in 100 who get the vaccine do not get the bug, are those good enough odds for you to choose the vaccine? Good enough for me. Long term? We do not know. Make your decision.

Then, Seth takes a shot at marketers “marketers relish the opportunity to sell to us, the amateurs: we make stupid decisions…”  I’m sorry, but people are not that easily manipulated. We may make unscientific decisions, often wrongs decisions, but we are not putty in the hands of marketing manipulation. If we were, TV ads would still work.

Going back to the choice of surgeon, it’s pretty difficult to get good, scientific information. It’s pretty easy to get anecdotes about successes or failures, but anecdotes aren’t science.

But the capper is the last line. Seth would name the vaccine after a dead kid and guilt you into giving the vaccine. Well, maybe he should sell soda the same way. Show a starving naked child in Africa named Gumbi. Name your new soft drink Gumbi and say that 10% of the profits will go straight to Gumbi’s villiage to buy food and clothing. It works for Tom and his free over-priced shoes. Why not a corn syrup rich soft drink?

For a post about science, it sure ends with manipulation. I guess the point is that since people don’t think with science, it’s okay to manipulate them emotionally. So the surgeon needs impressive carpet more than extended training?

Go get your flu shot.

Chris Reich, Bringing Science to Business