Jul 12 2007

Marketing Science

Yesterday’s post sparked a lively discussion in the comments, so I thought I would extend my own discussion of the topic, this time focusing more on selling science. Obviously, I strongly endorse promoting the public understanding of science. I have tried to make this a significant part of my academic career. It is why I founded the New England Skeptical Society, and now why I host the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast. There are various strategies for promoting science, and each has their strengths and weaknesses. I do not pretend to have any expertise on this topic, so I will speak from my personal experience and opinion.

The discussion gets somewhat confused by terminology and the fact that it seems multiple related but distinct issues are confused. So I will try to separate out what I see as the key issues: 1) science education; 2) the public image of science and scientists; 3) the public acceptance of specific scientific claims.

Science Education

In a perfect world both a positive popular image of science and the public’s understanding of science would be achieved through excellent science education. I think the best way to get people to accept the legitimacy of science, to have a positive view of science, and to accept the claims of science is for the public to be generally scientifically literate.

Science is not an ideology, a fashion, or even just a cultural value (although these things may include science). Science is a set of methods for understanding natural reality. It recognizes the necessity of logic and the primacy of evidence in this endeavor. The more individuals understand the methods of science, understand how science operates, and are knowledgeable about the findings of science – they more they are likely to accept it.

Acceptance based upon image, without true understanding, is of little value and will quickly fade. Further, promoters of science do not want to compete with other cultural phenomena on image alone. If you are free to fabricate an image, optimized for emotional appeal, and unfettered by reality or honesty, you will have an insuperable advantage over those who are tied to obsessively detail oriented, fact-based, and logically compulsive world of science.

The advantage of science is that, as a method of understanding, it works. The advantage is that it is real. But these strengths only appeal to those who understand why the methods of science are essential.

Therefore, any attempt to promote science must, at its core, be an educational effort. The end result must be improved scientific literacy. Marketing cannot achieve this. I agree, however, that marketing can act as the foot in the door, but it must be followed up by education and not an end in itself.

The Public Image of Science

Public image is indeed more susceptible to marketing strategies. It is also important to maintaining public interest in science, support for research, and respect for scientific institutions. But, as I said above, image alone is ephemeral. Also, image without substance is a double-edged sword, for pseudoscientists and charlatans can then easily hijack the image of science to sell nonsense. So while it is better to have a positive image than a negative image, the image must be backed up by an understanding of the substance.

Today science has a mixed public image. On the one hand, science and scientists still command a high degree of respect. The fact that the image of science is used to market products is an indication of this.

On the other hand, science is hampered by many negative stereotypes that are frustratingly persistent in popular culture. Hollywood still sees scientists largely as either mad scientists or hopeless nerds. The mad scientists is typically a megalomaniacal genius bent on changing the world, if not controlling it, or they dare, in their naked arrogance, to challenge God or the forces of nature.

Or scientists are socially inept nerds with tape on their glasses, no fashion sense, and a distinct absence of cool. There are some notable exceptions, like Dr. Who and Indiana Jones, but there is reason to be hopeful that this image is improving. But these stereotypes remain distressingly common.

But perhaps the worst aspect of the scientist stereotype is that they are freakish geniuses with arcane and inaccessible knowledge. Typically Hollywood scientists routinely make impossible leaps of deduction, have encyclopedic knowledge, and speak in undecipherable jargon. I’m sure this is how science can appear to a scientifically illiterate public, but often Hollywood scientists seem this way to working scientists. I call this the “science as magic” image.

What is shameful about this is that it makes it seem as if science is not for “ordinary” people. If you’re not a born genius, forget about science. Rather, working scientists often love to explain their work in ways that can be understood by most people. And there is no arcane magic by which they came to their knowledge or their deductions. A person of average intellectual resources should be able to follow the chain of evidence to the conclusion.

This is what I loved about Sherlock Holmes. In the end you could understand exactly how Holmes figured it all out. He was impressive, but not magical.

Accepting Specific Claims

Often such discussions revolve around the public acceptance of specific scientific claims – evolution, mental illness, global warming. Such issues can be overwhelmed with political, social, and religions implications, which can lead to rejection of the scientific consensus despite robust efforts at good education and even a generally positive image. In such cases, the scientific claims fall prey to a highly motivated and often sophisticated targeted attack by a special interest group. It is not as if evolution has simply failed to impress the public on it’s own right – it is rather that the public has been deliberately deceived by a carefully crafted campaign of emotional extortion and misinformation.

The only defense against such a campaign is either a fairly high degree of science education (and even this is no guarantee), or simply not being a member of the target group (in the case of evolution, not be a fundamentalist Christian or of another religious faith that preaches divine creation).

So while I am strongly in favor of improved science education, making science fun and accessible, giving people the tools to think critically, and improving the public image of science in general and evolution in particular – none of this will likely matter when a person of faith is being told they will go to hell if they accept evolution. Perhaps statistically we can mitigate the effects of preaching creationism (more accurately anti-evolutionism) by all of the above methods, but history has shown that either our methods so far have not been good, or perhaps the degree to which we can mitigate the effects of religious fundamentalism are small.

At least so far no one has figured out how to make a dent in the poll numbers that show that only a minority of Americans accept evolution. Until someone does, no one can really claim to have the answer.

Meanwhile we should keep plugging away on all fronts. This should include efforts by those of faith who accept evolution to convince their fellow believers that science is not the enemy. This war, ironically, may need to be won on the religious front.

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