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Is Behavioural Science a science at all?

Summary:
Clearly the understanding of how we react to stimuli presented by governments, marketers and others trying to change our behaviour, is important. Prime Ministers like to make out that they govern objectively and according to balanced assessment of evidence, or rather as is now common parlance: “guided by the science”.  Advertising agencies likewise use research to sell campaigns to their clients but they recognise advertising is a craft, not a science. Some techniques work better than others and experience shows how modest ideas can be crafted into great campaigns. Governing and advertising may borrow terms from science but that is just part of their persuasion, sugar-coating the pill.  In both cases “behavioural ‘science’” is a favourite. But just what is behavioural science? The

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Clearly the understanding of how we react to stimuli presented by governments, marketers and others trying to change our behaviour, is important. 

Prime Ministers like to make out that they govern objectively and according to balanced assessment of evidence, or rather as is now common parlance: “guided by the science”.  Advertising agencies likewise use research to sell campaigns to their clients but they recognise advertising is a craft, not a science. Some techniques work better than others and experience shows how modest ideas can be crafted into great campaigns. Governing and advertising may borrow terms from science but that is just part of their persuasion, sugar-coating the pill.  

In both cases “behavioural ‘science’” is a favourite. But just what is behavioural science? The Encyclopaedia Britannica says:

“Behavioural science [is] any of various disciplines dealing with the subject of human actions, usually including the fields of sociology, social and cultural anthropology, psychology, and behavioral aspects of biology, economics, geography, law, psychiatry, and political science.”

And that excludes business studies, notably marketing and advertising. BS, as it is otherwise known, is offered in courses at some 22 English universities. Not a single Russell Group university offers it though. Almost all universities offer social science degrees of some kind, such as PPE at Oxford, and those taking them have been alleged to have better job prospects: “Some 84.2% of social science graduates were employed three years after graduating, compared with 79% of arts and humanities graduates and 78% of graduates with science degrees.”

“Science” is a collective noun for a large number of academic disciplines which share a standard methodology:

Conjecture/theory -> experiment -> proof/rejection -> fresh conjecture/theory cycling on.

Different people correctly conducting the same experiments should, if it is a true science, get the same results. One essay considering whether sociology should be considered a science concluded that “controlled scientific experiments cannot be carried out on society and although many of the areas that are studied in sociology, such as human behaviour, are useful when trying to understand society, there are many different view points on each subject and therefore no one conclusion is drawn from every experiment carried out.”

In August 2013, the perhaps biased, but certainly well-informed Barry Ritholtz published ten reasons why economics is an art not a science. Experiments are hard, if not impossible, to conduct, behaviour is inconsistent, and announcing the predictions can affect what actually happens, to name but three.  For all the maths and equations, my own view is that, like advertising, economics is neither an art nor a science but a craft – a valuable craft for sure but a craft just the same.  Observing what happens is helpful if only to avoid making the same mistakes again.  The potter at his wheel does the same.  But if you cannot explain why the phenomenon happens, predict what therefore will happen, and conduct an experiment to prove it happened as predicted, it is not science.

Even the most far out and extreme thinking in theoretical physics today, including the likes of 11 dimensional M theory which is untestable right now, is set up so that as technology progresses it can tested and either varified or falsified. That is not true for the components of behavioural science listed above. It is not “a science” or even a collection of many sciences.

The uncomfortable truth is that practitioners add the word “science” to their chosen way of thinking to posh it up — “domestic science” sounds far more prestigious than its previous title, “household skills”, for example. So it is that when government claims it is guided by “the science”, it is merely poshing up whatever course of action it intends to take. Dig deeper and you will find claims that behavioural science is being employed and proves the rightness of the policies being deployed.

Be not fooled: it is not science but it is propaganda for the government’s chosen course. It is an appeal to authority. Like any form of advertising, the propaganda may have been tested to see what changes our behaviour more effectively and that may well be good for us and the country as a whole but it is a rhetorical device just the same.

The potter spins his wheel and the politician spins his message but they are craftspeople, not scientists.

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Tim Ambler
Tim Ambler (born 1937) is a British organizational theorist, author and academic on the field of Marketing effectiveness. Ambler featured on Marketing's list of the 100 most powerful figures in the industry. He is cited by the Chartered Institute of Marketing as one of the top 50 marketing experts in the world

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