Fixing Moral Hazards In Business Science

byDavidLS4y18th Oct 201496 comments


I'm a LW reader, two time CFAR alumnus, and rationalist entrepreneur.

Today I want to talk about something insidious: marketing studies.

Until recently I considered studies of this nature merely unfortunate, funny even. However, my recent experiences have caused me to realize the situation is much more serious than this. Product studies are the public's most frequent interaction with science. By tolerating (or worse, expecting) shitty science in commerce, we are undermining the public's perception of science as a whole.

The good news is this appears fixable. I think we can change how startups perform their studies immediately, and use that success to progressively expand.

Product studies have three features that break the assumptions of traditional science: (1) few if any follow up studies will be performed, (2) the scientists are in a position of moral hazard, and (3) the corporation seeking the study is in a position of moral hazard (for example, the filing cabinet bias becomes more of a "filing cabinet exploit" if you have low morals and the budget to perform 20 studies).

I believe we can address points 1 and 2 directly, and overcome point 3 by appealing to greed.

Here's what I'm proposing: we create a webapp that acts as a high quality (though less flexible) alternative to a Contract Research Organization. Since it's a webapp, the cost of doing these less flexible studies will approach the cost of the raw product to be tested. For most web companies, that's $0.

If we spend the time to design the standard protocols well, it's quite plausible any studies done using this webapp will be in the top 1% in terms of scientific rigor.

With the cost low, and the quality high, such a system might become the startup equivalent of citation needed. Once we have a significant number of startups using the system, and as we add support for more experiment types, we will hopefully attract progressively larger corporations.

Is anyone interested in helping? I will personally write the webapp and pay for the security audit if we can reach quorum on the initial protocols.

Companies who have expressed interested in using such a system if we build it:

(I sent out my inquiries at 10pm yesterday, and every one of these companies got back to me by 3am. I don't believe "startups love this idea" is an overstatement.)

So the question is: how do we do this right?

Here are some initial features we should consider:

  • Data will be collected by a webapp controlled by a trusted third party, and will only be editable by study participants.
  • The results will be computed by software decided on before the data is collected.
  • Studies will be published regardless of positive or negative results.
  • Studies will have mandatory general-purpose safety questions. (web-only products likely exempt)
  • Follow up studies will be mandatory for continued use of results in advertisements.
  • All software/contracts/questions used will be open sourced (MIT) and creative commons licensed (CC BY), allowing for easier cross-product comparisons.

Any placebos used in the studies must be available for purchase as long as the results are used in advertising, allowing for trivial study replication.

Significant contributors will receive:

  • Co-authorship on the published paper for the protocol.
  • (Through the paper) an Erdos number of 2.
  • The satisfaction of knowing you personally helped restore science's good name (hopefully).

I'm hoping that if a system like this catches on, we can get an "effective startups" movement going :)

So how do we do this right?