Jul 11 2007

Marketing Pseudoscience

A recent blog entry by Pat Sullivan blames the higher rate of acceptance for intelligent design/creationism (ID) over “Darwinism” on the superior marketing of ID. Sullivan’s arguments are weak and confused on multiple levels, but he does highlight the notion that it is much easier to “sell” nonsense than real science. Sullivan should no, since he sells all sorts of nonsense.

“Darwinisms” marketing problems

I think the real problem with public acceptance of evolution is not that evolution is not being marketed well, but rather that acceptance of evolution should not be a matter of marketing at all. It should, rather, be a matter of quality science education. Sullivan seems to think that “marketing” and education are synonymous – but they couldn’t be more different.

Marketing is about deception and style, not conveying facts or concepts. As the now old saying goes, “you don’t sell the steak, you sell the sizzle.” The implications are clear, you don’t need substance or genuine quality for good marketing, you just need the appearance of those things. The slick marketing of iPods is another good example – what is being sold is a lifestyle and an image, not a product (that iPods are actually excellent products is irrelevant).

In the world of marketing, ID has a distinct advantage. With this I agree. Creationists have been quite successful in marketing their image to a religious public. First, they known their market – those of Christian faith. They play upon the images that are appealing to their market. Creationism is therefore associated with faith, virtue, and godliness. They have also been successful in negatively marketing evolution. They obsessively refer to evolution as “Darwinism” to make it seem like an ideology, like the quirky beliefs of an individual, and also makes it seem as if those who accept evolution are paying homage to the man, Darwin. Their goal is to pit God against Darwin – to the faithful, it’s no contest.

The notion that evolutionary scientists should try to compete within this marketing paradigm is misguided. I’m sure Sullivan and other creationists would love for scientists to buy this nonsense, to fall into this trap, but so far they have wisely resisted.

Sullivan implies that the marketing advantage of ID over “Darwinism” relates to a scientific advantage. Although in the comments to this blog entry he steps back from this implication, it seems pretty clear in the entry that he believes this.

In the UK the numbers of those who accept evolution vs ID are different than the US. In a recent poll, when asked to describe their views on life origins, 22% chose creationism, 17% opted for intelligent design, and 48% selected evolutionary theory (the rest did not know.) Is evolution marketed better in the UK? I don’t think so. There is, however, less religious belief in the UK, particularly Christian fundamentalism. Acceptance of evolution was lowest in the over 55 demographic – an encouraging sign.

What the numbers reveal is that acceptance of creationism and rejection of evolution tracks best with particular religious beliefs, not with how well evolution is marketed. It is not clear how well it tracks with the quality of science education. That is the primary tool that has been advocated to combat anti-evolutionism (and I endorse it), but I don’t know of any evidence to suggest that it works. It seems that religious indoctrination trumps science education.

What About Science Education

Having said that, I do endorse improved science education as a primary tool for combating the particular nonsense of ID/creationism. I think this will result in slow progress, but slow is better than none. What Sullivan does not mention (and I have no evidence to suggest that he understand this) is that acceptance of a scientific theory should not be about marketing, but logic, evidence, and understanding. In short, it should be about the science.

In this arena, evolution is the clear and overwhelming victor. Science is a free market of ideas, one driven by the meritocracy of evidence and logic. In this arena evolution has won, hands down. ID/creationism has been found to be a worthless collection of lies, distortions, logical fallacies, and misconceptions. The sizzle may sound appealing, but the meat is rotten – correction, there isn’t even any meat. It’s a painted piece of cardboard with artificial sizzle sound being piped in.

In courts of law, where there are rules of logic and evidence, evolution has defeated creationism and ID at every turn. Judge Jones, in the recent Dover trial decision, went so far as to characterize the ID experts trotted out before him as intellectually dishonest.

The only shred of truth in Sullivan’s writing is that science must be made accessible to the masses. This is not about marketing, however, but about effective education. This is why we need more effective science education. We need more science popularizers (a shameless plug for science bloggers). And we need more good science in the mass media. This means, in part, training and hiring more science journalists, rather than the current trend of firing science journalists and turning over science stories to general journalists who wouldn’t know science if they tripped over it.

Sullivan’s Other Pseudoscientific Marketing

It is enlightening to point out that Pat Sullivan is a purveyor of a long list of CAM nonsense. Orac  has done a good job of criticizing this, and making the point that believers in one form of pseudoscience often endorse other forms as well. This makes sense – if you don’t have a basic respect for scientific methodology, or don’t have the intellectual tools necessary to distinguish science from pseudoscience, you are likely to accept all sorts of pseudoscience, not just one.

Sullivan, for example, promotes the discredited idea that thimerosal in vaccines is responsible for the autism epidemic – despite the fact that all the evidence shows this is not the case, and in fact there is probably not even a real autism epidemic.

On Sullivan’s website he describes himself as a “Long-time sufferer of Candida, Chronic Insomnia, Mercury-Toxicity, Chronic Fatigue, Irritable Bowel, and Adrenal Fatigue Syndromes. (But doing quite well now!)” That’s a nice list of fake syndromes, pseudo-syndromes, or hugely overdiagnosed syndromes. These are, in fact, common targets of CAM. The marketing strategy is well established – give someone a bogus but impressive sounding name fort their laundry list of common and non-specific symptoms (that creates the demand). Then fill the demand you just created with a fake treatment, and let the placebo effect do the rest.

Sullivan puts his marketing knowledge to work selling the public a long list of supplements for just about any health problem, none of which is backed up by credible scientific evidence.

But who needs science, when you have marketing.

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