“Science” Sells. But Is it Science?

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Goodbye cold rain and snow, hello warm weather! With spring approaching, people will slowly emerge from their winter domiciles, and mosey into the great outdoors. The season gives us new opportunities to walk, hike, bike, picnic, fish, and play golf. But for most, one unpleasant inevitability accompanies these active pleasures: itchy mosquito bites.

Walmart offers salvation in a product you can buy online, the Viatek Mosquito Shield Band. A box of ten will set you back 20 bucks, less one copper penny. And here’s the pitch:

“Enjoy your time outdoors more this summer with the Viatek BUGBANDS10 Bug Repellant Band. It has been scientifically proven to keep annoying bugs, such as mosquitoes, ticks, flies and gnats, away. The Viatek mosquito shield band is ideal for use when you want to entertain guests in your back yard. The item is 100 percent natural and lasts up to 120 hours. All you have to do is put it on your wrist, ankle, bag or stroller to keep the bugs away. The band continues to work for up to five days even when it gets wet. It can also help protect your family from lime disease and other health concerns that result from getting bit by insects.”

Impressed?

Before you shell out for your supply, you should know something about the scientifically-proven part: it’s pure hokum. Never mind that Walmart misspelled Lyme. The manufacturer, Viatek, “said that their wristbands would protect you from mosquito bites, but their claims weren’t backed up by scientific evidence,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Those claims violate the law and a 2003 FTC order against the defendants.”

In the suit that the FTC brought against Viatek, the agency alleged that the “defendants do not possess, and did not possess at the time they made the representations, competent and reliable scientific evidence to substantiate the claims they made in advertisements.” The case is pending a court ruling. No scientific evidence? But Viatek said scientifically proven! So did Walmart! And 75% percent of the people who spoke up online at Walmart said they would recommend this product to a friend. Maybe all of this is getting too . . . unscientific. Hmmmm. I’m glad the nannies at the FTC have my back.

“Brain training” services have also raised hackles for gratuitously invoking science in their product promotions and advertising. Lumosity, a service that has over 50 million subscribers – about the same number as Netflix – uses the tagline, “Challenge memory and attention with scientific brain games.” The company’s 46-second promotional video, accessible on its homepage, mentions science three times. Competitors such as Cogmed, and BrainHQ have taken similar approaches, mixing shovelfuls of science gravitas into their online content.

But it seems that not everyone cozies to the industry’s marketing schtick. An article in Scientific American (Brain Training Doesn’t Make You Smarter, December 2, 2014) gave a scathing rebuke to their methods. “Cogmed claims to be ‘a computer-based solution for attention problems caused by poor working memory,’ and BrainHQ will help you ‘make the most of your unique brain.’ The promise of all of these products, implied or explicit, is that brain training can make you smarter—and make your life better.”

The article referenced a press release from The Stanford University Center on Longevity and the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Human Development:

“It is customary for advertising to highlight the benefits and overstate potential advantages of their products. In the brain-game market, however, advertisements also assure consumers that claims and promises are based on solid scientific evidence, as the games are ‘designed by neuroscientists’ at top universities and research centers. These claims are reinforced through paid advertising and distributed by trusted news sources.”

The formal statement from these two organizations was signed by seventy of the world’s leading cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists, and included this paragraph:

“We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do . . . The strong consensus of this group is that the scientific literature does not support claims that the use of software-based ‘brain games’ alters neural functioning in ways that improve general cognitive performance in everyday life, or prevent cognitive slowing and brain disease.”

The statement further explains that although some brain training companies “present lists of credentialed scientific consultants and keep registries of scientific studies pertinent to cognitive training . . . the cited research is [often] only tangentially related to the scientific claims of the company, and to the games they sell.”

Society needs more highly-principled scientists to rat out similar cases of misleading product marketing hype. Beyond bug bands and brain games, many industries misuse science as a selling tool. In hawking their products and services, vendors exploit its persuasive power, and capitalize on its insidious ability to help them shortcut any obligation to offer deeper explanations.

“Backed by science,” “based on science,” “supported by scientific evidence,” and “scientifically proven.” It’s embedded in much of the media that comes our way. Science this and science that, breathlessly delivered to inboxes through email marketing blasts, RSS, and Tweeted from Twitter. Hard-hitting hype from the social media content team! We can’t get enough science. Just added to the mix: data science, and data scientists. We’ve become jaded. Little wonder that people regularly punt their rights to being skeptical. “Why bother? Everybody shouts this stuff.”

For me, all of this science lingo once conjured benign and reassuring images. Smart, slightly geeky-looking people wearing glasses, dressed in pristine starched white lab coats, holding clipboards or tablet computers. Brows furrowed in deep thought, they tirelessly ponder mind-numbing tables of numbers, while asking penetrating questions, and extracting clarity from the inscrutable. All for the purpose of bringing us a step closer to the truth.

But today, when I hear science juxtaposed to a product category, name or brand, I’m just as likely to envision a slickly-dressed huckster with a bank account, wearing an expensive watch and Gucci shoes. A modern-day “Doctor” John R. Brinkley, whose self-promoted quack science in the early 1900’s for restoring male virility was eventually exposed by the dogged Morris Fishbein of the American Medical Association. But not before Brinkley became very, very wealthy through his cleverly-marketed services. “Sales is all about giving customers what they want!” Yes . . . but . . . well, gosh. It’s easy to stray off the ethical road when you’re making a beeline toward Positive Cash Flow City.

“Well, I’m not a scientist.” – Florida governor Rick Scott

What makes the widespread use of science messages in advertising and promotion perplexing is that in America, views on science are decidedly mixed. Governor Scott just banned using the words global warming and climate change in any official state communication. Hard to imagine anything more anti-science, except banning science textbooks from Florida’s classrooms. “Maybe that’s coming! . . .” Worried sarcasm, coming from the office right next door.

Elsewhere, in 2013, residents of the City of Portland, Oregon, nixed adding fluoride to the local drinking water. And a 2014 Pew Research Survey showed a sizable gap between the views held by scientists and those held by US adults on several key issues. For example, 88% of scientists believe that genetically modified foods are safe to eat, compared to 37% of US adults. And 98% of scientists believe that humans and other living things have evolved over time, compared to 65% of US adults. (Yes, I typed the latter percentage correctly.) Clearly, not everyone trusts scientists, or what they say.

On the other hand, many people, including me, hold an abiding appreciation for science. “Science appeals to our rational brain,” wrote Joel Achenbach in The Washington Post (Why Americans are So Dubious about Science, February 15, 2015). This should give marketers pause. Science messaging might turn a prospective customer on, or send him or her running hysterically in the opposite direction.

Either way, we’re plagued with enough science naiveté to fill a room, which makes conditions ripe for fakery and truth-stretching. In a book review of Vitamania (The Wall Street Journal, March 19, 2015), Trevor Butterworth wrote, “They are avatars of vitality, better taken than understood.” He was referring to vitamins, herbal remedies, and other dietary supplements, but his comment speaks to the problems that emanate from science hype. Fortunately, organizations have been established in response to the profound need for better public education. Sense about Science was among the best I found. “We are a charitable trust that equips people to make sense of scientific and medical claims in public discussion.” A great resource – if you have a computer and a web connection. (The last I checked, 60% of the world’s population do not.)

Science is a social construct, and we entrust it to reveal the truth. According to Marcia McNutt, former head of the US Geological Survey, and now editor of the magazine, Science, “science is a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis on the laws of nature, or not.” Which is why it’s destructive when people misuse the term in a marketing or sales context. Often, their authoritative assertions come from far less rigorous investigation. Or worse, simply from what they think. Or even worse, from what they want us to think.

Where should the line be drawn, then? Fair question. In their case against Viatek, the regulators at the FTC placed it right about here:

“For purposes of this order, the following definitions shall apply: ‘Competent and reliable scientific evidence’ shall mean tests, analyses, research, studies, or other evidence based on the expertise of professionals in the relevant area, that have been conducted and evaluated in an objective manner by persons qualified to do so, using procedures generally accepted in the profession to yield accurate and reliable results.”

The definition still allows considerable legal wiggle room. To borrow from the familiar proverb, Science is in the eye of the beholder. Which is why it’s important to differentiate good science from bad science / pseudo-science.

Good science

Good science begins with using the modern scientific method:

• Ask a Question
• Do Background Research
• Construct a Hypothesis
• Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment
• Analyze Your Data and Draw a Conclusion
• Communicate Your Results

The scientific method has democratized science in our time, and makes scientific discovery accessible to anyone – from kindergarteners to great-grandparents. You don’t need an advanced degree to engage in scientific research, just a commitment to approach the experiment through the scientific method. This method galvanizes communities of knowledge, and helps people cohere the experimental conclusions of others, expanding our learning opportunities. In our society, what matters most in vetting the believability of science is the basis for the experiment, and the integrity of the methods used.

Good science uses experimental methods that are clearly documented and open to a peer community. Good science develops experiments that can be replicated by others, enabling the results to be independently verified. Good science has explanatory and predictive power. But this does not mean that good science cannot be disproven. Good science accepts reasonable challenges to its findings, and encourages peer review.

Bad science and pseudo-science

According to Wikipedia, “Pseudoscience is often characterized by the use of vague, contradictory, exaggerated or unprovable claims, an over-reliance on confirmation rather than rigorous attempts at refutation, a lack of openness to evaluation by other experts, and a general absence of systematic processes to rationally develop theories.” Often, the experimenter has an ulterior motive for conducting the experiment, such as personal financial gain, or power and influence. The experimental method does not conform to the modern scientific method, and there’s often pressure to confirm what the researchers (or the study’s sponsors) already believe. The variables are often not controlled. Most notably, bad science lacks community. The results cannot be reliably tested by others, and are rarely, if ever, embedded in other research, cited in academic journals, or re-used in any way. The results are often self-proclaimed as “inerrant,” or “beyond debate.”

What’s the best antidote to being suckered by scientific hokum? Constant skepticism. And a sharp eye for finding holes, gaps and anomalies in things that others claim as fact. Something to keep in mind the next time you read or hear anything claiming indisputable evidence or scientific proof.

“Scientific results are always provisional, susceptible to being overturned by some future experiment or observation.” Joel Achenbach wrote. “Scientists rarely proclaim an absolute truth or an absolute certainty. Uncertainty is inevitable at the frontiers of knowledge.”

Further reading: Guidelines for Evaluating Scientific Studies

3 COMMENTS

  1. Product hokum and quackery have been with us since the beginning of civilization. Today’s mosquito shield band was yesterday’s snake oil. As for Rick Scott, and other politicians who question the reality of proven, objective scientific facts, the admonition for the public is the same as for those who accept advertisers’ puff, lies and bunk: caveat emptor ad infinitum.

    There’s no substitute for good science and the scientific method. Ask Marie and Pierre Curie, Alexander Fleming. etc.

  2. Michael: thanks for your comment. You have described so well a dichotomy that exists with science. On the one hand, there’s so much good, credible, and valuable scientific research. It would be unimaginably awful to consider what living conditions would be like without it.

    On the other hand, in the pursuit of objectives that are often opaque, opportunistic people have hijacked the word science in an effort to persuade others that their conclusions are valid and have been rigorously tested, when, in fact, the word science (and those related to it) are just hype.

    I believe that anytime scientific claims are made, people should take the position that the assertions must be proven. If it is true science, the discovery methods should be open, and the organization promoting the findings should welcome the scrutiny as an opportunity. Failure to do so is a red flag that the claim is not valid.

  3. Andrew, I couldn’t agree with you more. Somehow in the race to profitability, companies have forgotten to be truthful and ethical. What troubles me is that customers and consumers are incredibly forgiving, to the point of complacency. Caveat emptor indeed – but it’s absolutely exhausting for customers who are bombarded by these thousands of lies every day. Sketicism and a healthy dose of cynicism make us pessimistic, negative, and even ill even while the shareholders gleefully count their money.

    One of my favourite book covers was from Seth Godin’s book “All Marketers are Liars.” The book’s theme was actually more mundane – more about telling your story, but the Pinocchio-photo was spot on.

    How do businesses get away with it? Because they can. Because people and organisations that should be challenging them don’t do that. In theory, competitors will show up the lies. In practice, they wouldn’t dare for fear of being found guilty of the same. The media? Mostly too afraid that if they do speak the truth and expose the lies, they will lose advertising revenue. The government? All in the hands of industry lobbyists, and too weak to make a difference. Customers are all on their own, and until they become more militant and vote with their feet, nothing will change.

    Bring on more snake oil!

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