Beware the altar of science: We are more than data and chemicals



All things are made of atoms, and... Everything that living things do can be understood in terms of the jiggling and wiggling of atoms."

So claimed the theoretical physicist Richard Feynman.

In The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions In A Culture of Easy Answers, the American essayist and author Curtis White takes issue (in fantastically snarky and cranky style) with this line of argument.

For him, scientists - and in particular the popularizers of science such as Dawkins and Lehrer - wish to reduce both our understanding of what it is to be human, and the very experience of being to a mechanistic materialism.

His is a sweeping argument, full of unfair generalizations. Yet it contains some useful truth for us.

Science he argues, would have us believe that nature, humans, consciousness, personality, emotions, creativity, and the “whole human sensorium” ... are all mechanical. That we are all but chemical computers.

But as White argues, you don’t have to be religious to take issue with this perspective on human nature.

Certainly regarding human beings as chemical computers fundamentally fails to shed any light on what it is to be human.

While we can show how a part of our brain ‘lights’ up in response say, to listening to Mozart, it does little to help us understand that experience.

As White puts it, it’s a perspective that ignores “the obvious fact that neurological activity is, so far as we know, an effect and not a cause of anything.”

White argues that reducing humans to computers and insisting that we are we are but chemical expressions of our DNA and our neuron denies us freedom and choice. If we are computers then as White puts it “no one should be surprised if our lives are systematized... When we accept the naturalness of neuroscience’s specious discoveries, and when we accept the world it helps to provide intellectual cover for, we become mere functions within systems.”

Furthermore, it does nothing to help us answer “the most relevant questions about the real problem. The question should be this: what is it about human beings that leads them to feel that the world into which they happen to have been born is inadequate to something they seem to feel they want?”

And here we get to what is for me the most interesting - and for us in marketingland, most relevant - part of White's (cantankerous and admittedly very imperfect) thesis:

What fraction of a man does neuroscience bring us? A super-thin slice of brain tissue? A computer protocol? A promise of more later? For all his arrogant pride in what he can demonstrate, and the certain procedures that produce knowledge, the scientist is insensible to the nuance of what-it’s-like to be human, while in art a harmonic shift, an unexpected rhythm, will seem to say so much and so convincingly. It gives us, “yes, that’s what it’s like to feel that feeling,” whether joy, rage, despair, heroic triumph, pensiveness, or whatever emotion or combination of emotions it may be.”

We may try and reduce human needs, wants, desires, motivations and behaviours to an algorithm. To a line of code. To a multicolored brainscan.

But whatever understanding is to be found in them (it would be foolish in the extreme to suggest they are worthless) no amount of fMRI scans, no amount ‘big data’, and no amount of behavioral economics studies will truly give us the rich, detailed, three-dimensional, empathetic, emotionally-laden, nuanced, insight into human nature, into what it is to be human, that our output so depends on if it is to be effective.

Here, for example, is the neuroscientist Daniel Levitin describing in his book This Is Your Brain On Music how our brains can extract audio information from the chaotic collection of air molecules bouncing against our eardrum:

Imagine that you stretch a pillowcase tightly across the opening of a bucket, and different people throw ping-pong balls at it from different distances. Each person can throw as many ping-pong balls as he likes, and as often as he likes. Your job is to figure out — just by looking at how the pillowcase moves up and down — how many people there are, who they are, and whether they are walking toward you, walking away from you, or are standing still. This is analogous to what the auditory system has to contend with in making identifications of auditory objects in the world, using only the movement of the eardrum as a guide.”

And here, in contrast, is the author and poet Diane Ackerman on the human experience of music:

‘Amazing Grace’ is a good example of that lighter-than-air sort of hymn, full of musical striving and stretching, as if one’s spirit itself were being elongated. Think lofty thoughts and sing that elevating tune, and soon enough you will feel uplifted (even despite having to sing such unmelodious words as ‘wretch’)... Like pure emotions, music surges and sighs, rampages or grows quiet, and, in that sense, it behaves so much like our emotions that it seems often to symbolize them, to mirror them, to communicate them to others, and thus free us from the elaborate nuisance and inaccuracy of words.”

Levitin does give us fascinating insight into the mechanics of how we hear music. But Ackerman gives us insight into what that’s like.

We may well be living in an age where our daily lives are mediated by technology, by the outputs of code, by the fruits of science.

And we may well be living in an age where the fruits of science and technology are helping to make our efforts as marketers more efficient, better directed, more useful, more timely, more interactive, more responsive, and so on.

We are right to be entranced and fascinated by what all this offers up.

But we would be well advised not to worship at the altar of science and technology too much, too slavishly, or too uncritically. Or to reduce human nature to the jiggling and wiggling of atoms.

“Just move me, dude”, exhorts Dan Wieden.

If we wish to do that - and the evidence clearly demonstrates that this is the cornerstone of effective advertising - then we must think like artists, not just scientists.


Diane Ackerman, A Natural History Of the Senses

Les Binet and Peter Field, The Long And The Short Of It: Balancing Short- And Long-Term Marketing Strategies

Richard Feynman, Robert Leighton, Matthew Sands, The Feynman Lectures On Physics, Volume 1, The Relation Of Physics To Other Sciences

Daniel Levitin, This Is Your Brain On Music

Curtis White, The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions In A Culture of Easy Answers