Medieval Medicine and Massive Data

Empirical generalizations allow us to move from theory to understanding laws.  Byron Sharp of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute illustrated the point by discussing medieval doctors, who did their work based on theory, without laws. “These doctors killed millions. None of us would like to be treated by the most spectacular medieval doctor. We need laws. How strong are these? When do they hold? When don’t they hold?”

Massive amounts of data from online sources may allow replacing theory with brute force approaches. “If you have enough data, you can take a brute force approach to determine what is optimal for that particular segment,” said Jim Oliver of Google, which is collecting massive amounts of data from its online activities. “You don’t have to rely on global averages. You can get to a granular level.”

Managers are concerned about what works. “We don’t care if you want online or offline, between the lines or below the line. It is not online versus newspapers versus TV,” said Jack Wakshlag, Turner Broadcasting. “It is how to get the best message to resonate with consumers. In making decisions, empirical generalizations based on good data trump good sounding theories every day of the week.”

We need to distinguish between empirical generalizations, laws and theory. On speaker characterized diminishing returns as “emergent behavior.” Double jeopardy is an “empirical generalization,” not a law. Tellis said in his view is a law is a generalization with no exceptions (or that holds a high percentage of time), while a theory is an explanation.

“An empirical generalization is not enough. You have to know the causes of it — and managers want to know how they can beat that generalization,” said John Rossiter of the University of Wollongong.

Robert Gunther

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2 Responses to “Medieval Medicine and Massive Data”


  1. 1 Byron Sharp December 4, 2008 at 3:34 pm

    A law-like pattern is useful because it can be used for prediction, and as a benchmark. Many physical science laws are used by engineers this way. Expressing the law as a managerial principle is also useful (but not essential as Rossiter argues).

    The Double Jeopardy law provides valuable benchmarks, and predicts a host of brand performance metrics for any particular market share. It can also be turned into normative principles like “if you want to grow marketshare then you must gain a lot more customers”.

    Both descriptive and normative statements of laws are useful. see Hunt, SD (1991) “Modern Marketing Theory”.


  1. 1 wow macros Trackback on October 20, 2014 at 8:43 pm

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