Year End Book Review – The Big Picture by Sean Carroll

I thought I’d end the year on a book review. It’s not a marketing book, but it is the book that I’ve found most useful and influential this year working in marketing. So I guess in a way it is.

The book is the rather ostentatiously titled The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself by Sean Carroll. Phew! It sounds a bit “much” – there are many books like this around, essentially trying to bring the incomprehensible (quantum physics, amongst other more approachable subjects) to regular folk. I enjoy them, though I’ve long since accepted that I’ll never really understand quantum physics*.

But that’s not why I found it so relevant or interesting. The bit that was so insightful was the section on Bayesian reasoning and beliefs. And the insight that, whether you like it or not, everyone comes to the table with subjective, prior beliefs about any given subject (based on their own history and experiences) – and trying to ignore that is a pointless exercise.

Bayes Theorem is a way of trying to calculate and work out degrees of belief or credences. In essence, it’s a process for trying to work out whether a given proposition about the world is true or not, given a series of observations. A simple version of the theorem is that:

Well what does that mean, and what has that got to do with anything, let alone marketing?

A simpler way of explaining this equation is to describe the process. I’m trying to figure out the credence of something (i.e. whether or not a given proposition is credible). For example, whether my opponent has a particular poker hand, whether someone is lying to me, whether Brexit will be bad for the UK, whether Trump will be a good president, or whether using Twitter is useful for B2B marketing.

You may or may not have evidence for any of these things. But the interesting and important part of this equation is at the end – the prior credences given by individuals to a particular idea. An essential part of Bayes Theorem is that:

Prior beliefs matter. I.e. that everyone has a prior, subjective view on a given topic. And that this prior subjective view manifests itself as, often strongly-held beliefs on any given matter.

Why does this matter? Many, many discussions about a topic begin with people stating their beliefs on a subject – “I think Twitter is vital for a strong digital marketing strategy”. “I think social media is a waste of time for B2B marketing”. How can such mutually exclusive views co-exist (and so many do, in the world of marketing)? I think it’s primarily because there is so little evidence of efficacy and impact in marketing. It’s not that marketing techniques don’t work, it’s just that the hard scientific evidence about what exactly does work, how and to what extent, is woeful. I did a science degree at university and spent much of my 3rd year in tutorials ripping apart published papers (on psychology – my specialism) for experimental inadequacies. And these were papers published in the main psychology journals of the day. If these pre-eminent scientists were making experimental mistakes, the standards of scientific discipline in marketing are 100 years behind.

What’s the problem with this? The problem is that the hard evidence for almost all claims made my marketing gurus and agencies is pretty much absent. Now this doesn’t mean to say that we shouldn’t still carry out campaigns and activities based on our beliefs. What it means is that you need to accept a little humility when making strong arguments for particular strategies. Most of the arguments start from the prior beliefs of the participants – that they bring to the table based on their past experience (or “path-history”).

So rather than trying to argue that someone is objectively right or wrong on a given subject (how often have you heard yourself make far-too-bold claims for marketing strategy?), accept the beliefs that they bring to the table, see the perspective that they are taking, and try to work with those different beliefs. Understand that everyone is coming in to an argument with prior beliefs; beliefs built up over years of their subjective experience. Bayes Theorem then gives you a formula for how to update your beliefs given evidence, though we all struggle to do that I know. I’ve found this very useful this year, helping me to understand why people come to the table with particular views that seem so different to my own.

But I do thoroughly recommend the book. One of the few to combine philosophy, quantum physics, biology and theology so well in such a readable way.


* I find the Core Theory quoted at the end of the book beautiful in its simplicity. It seems to explain everything in such a neat style, but I’m lying if I claim to really comprehend this:

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