Debasing science to sell stuff

“There is a rich living to be made by anyone prepared to prostitute the language – and the wonder of – science”

from “A Devil’s Chaplain” by Richard Dawkins, Professor for Public Understanding of Science, Oxford University.

It annoys me how many people use the trappings of science to sell stuff – even if it’s a worthy charity. I don’t mean harmless stuff like cosmetic or toothpaste manufacturers showing beautiful serious looking actors in their ads wearing white lab coats – one could even argue this helps promote science. No what gets me mad is when pseudo-science is seriously dressed up like the real thing. Enough that it fools some people and puts others off science.

For example, management consultants and market research agencies regularly peddle shoddy science to imply they have some special formula. The words ‘discovery’, ‘breakthrough’ are used too loosely.

When scientists make a discovery they carefully explain their how they did it, so that others can use and adapt the method and check their results. It’s also important to carefully outline the method so that inquiring minds can think of alternative explanations, or even spot that the result is possibly merely due to the method.

Just in the past week I’ve read two examples where people declared major findings but gave scant details of their method – instead they paraded scientific language and credentials. I just hate this sort of “trust us” argument – it is deeply unscientific.

My first example was from the UK where the marketing body for commercial TV (known as thinkbox) released a report claiming to show that TV offered the highest return to advertisers, higher than any other medium… surprise, surprise. This they said was based on complex econometric modelling, so complex that they couldn’t show us mere mortals. On top of this they had done a neuroscience experiment which showed the importance of creativity in getting people to watch and remember ads. I suspect that the real purpose of presenting these two unrelated studies together was purely for theatrical effect – to make it all look more scientific – statistics and neuroscience!!!. The scant details make it impossible for anyone to check their results.

The other example came from an anti-alcohol group called the “Alcohol Policy Coalition”. They issued a press release where the chief executive of the Victorian Heart Foundation said “After reviewing all of the scientific evidence, it appears that the positive effects of alcohol in reducing the risk of cadiovascular disease have been hugely overstated”. Now this surprised me because the epidermilogical and clinical evidence is rather compelling alcohol does reduce risk of cadivascular disease even at quite high levels of consumption. I wondered what new research had turned this around so went to the website of the Alcohol Policy Coalition where all I found was the September press release which said a full report would be available on the website. Hmmm, release a provocative report to the press in September about an unpublished report, give no details, and two months later the report still isn’t released. My Institute would never issue a press release before the scientific report it was based on was released. Let alone hide the report for months!

While serious medical research keeps reporting that alcohol consumption lowers heart attack risk. Not just epidemiological research but also clinical intervention studies – a 2011 systematic review and meta-analysis shows that patients given alcohol showed positive improvement in known bio-markers for heart disease risk. Indeed the result for ‘good cholestrol’ was “greater than any currently available single pharmacological therapy, including fibrates (approved by the Food and Drug Administration for people with low levels of high density lipoprotein cholesterol).”

With results like these, carefully documented in the scientic medical literature, I wonder how a (non-qualified, non-researcher) like the CEO of the Victorian Heart Foundation can say that a review of “all the scientific evidence” (really, all of it?) shows alcohol’s effect has been “hugely overstated” (overstated by whom?). Feeding this sort of disinformation into the press confuses the public and diminishes their opinion of science – it gives the impression that science is all confused, and that results simply depend on the agenda an organisation is pushing. Shame on the Victorian Heart Foundation.

Professor Byron Sharp.

1 thought on “Debasing science to sell stuff

  1. Some good examples of how ‘management gurus’, like Jim Collins and/ or McKinsey, use so-called rigorous scientific analyses and methods are brilliantly described in Phil Rozenzweig’s book ‘The Halo Effect’.

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