Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Friday, December 16, 2011

The invisible toothpaste: overselling science

Justin Hall-Tipping CEO of "Nanoholdings" gives a presentation titled "The Future of Nano-Electric Power Generation". I was not impressed by the scientific content of the talk, but it think it can give us interesting insight on how communication works and how the public sees science and scientists.

The science of advertising is based on a number of fundamental laws; the most important one can be stated as, "don't just sell them a toothpaste, sell them a whole new way of life". You can see this law applied every day in TV. If you brush your teeth with a specific brand of toothpaste, you don't just get beautiful white teeth, but you'll become sexy and athletic. And you'll have a happy and smiling family, too!

Almost every one who works in advertising knows and applies the law, but if you want to see real mastery, do give a look to the video above. This guy is not just selling a toothpaste; he is selling a promise of a toothpaste to come; an invisible toothpaste. He is a true adept of the Art, a master. Look at the posture, the tone, the sense of the talk, the mix of scientific wonder and moral duty. Look at the faces of the people listening to the talk - totally enthralled. Look at the final stroke of genius, when he sorts out of his pocket the photo of a little girl from Sudan, dying of thirst. That borders on the sublime.

But what is exactly that this guy is selling? Well, my impression while watching the show was to be exposed to the output of a giant hair dryer. Of course, nanotubes are real and they have interesting properties. They do have promising future applications. But, in this talk we have no quantitative information anywhere, except for one point and, there, the given datum is wrong! (I leave it to readers to discover it as an exercise). I also went to the site of the company and there I found plenty of claims, but no details, no quantitative data, no products on sale. So, there is no way to say whether their products are real or something coming out of that giant hair drier I was mentioning before. 

Apart from that, what is hugely interesting in this talk, it is the way scientists are described. Notice when he says (8:15), ".. these incredibly brilliant and kind scientists .. they have a magic look of the world .. their discoveries are coming out of the lab, and into the world.... "

A truly brilliant choice of words: I think we have here a nice summary of the problem with the public perception of scientists. They are "brilliant and kind" as long as "their discoveries are coming out of the lab and into the world" in the form of assorted gadgetry. When it works, it is "magic." But, when scientists are not bringing gadgetry for free; when they warn us of inconvenient truths such as climate change or resource depletion, well, the magic is gone. They are not any more brilliant and kind; they are enemies of the people to be insulted and threatened.

With this attitude of the public, it is impossible to think that solutions based on voluntary restraints could ever work. But can we really solve our problems with nifty little gadgets? Surely not with windows that change color or glasses that let you find your car keys in the dark. Maybe nanotubes could give us a breakthrough in solar cells, just maybe; but don't forget that even if we could have cells at zero cost, a solar plant would still cost money because of all the rest that is needed, from supports to the electronics.  So, there are no miracles in science  and we are going to be badly disappointed if we expect science to solve all our problems by "magic." It is like expecting to whiten our teeth with an invisible toothpaste.

H-T: Neven


  1. Optimism is what keeps us alive, right?

    BTW, optimistic people tend to have more children than pessimistic, so everything is fine :-)



  2. Nice post!

    Typically this overselling is caused by the necessity of these companies to find investors. The problem is that the public is left with the impression that those wonders are on reach. As time passes and they never arrive, people tend to think that true, wonderful inventions have been suppressed. This makes them more prone to accept conspiracy theories, specially regarding free energies and similar trashy things. So, at the end, their are damaging the reputation of real scientists just trying to explain the actual truth. For that reason, this kind of commercial overselling should be denounced and combated.


  3. Probably, this way of thinking is one more dire consequence of a decade plenty of "possitive thinking" specially in the US, as explains Barbara Ehrenreich in her book "Smile or Die" (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jan/09/barbara-ehrenreich-smile-lucy-ellmann). I've been reading it last week and it's quite impressive, I recommend it to you.

    By the way, in the last chapter ("Towards post-positive thinking") she refers to Peak Oil. I reproduce her words in the spanish version: "Pero ¿es cierto que ahora el ser humano está en una situación más beneficiosa que antaño? [...] En los últimos tiempos, incluso los pastores evangélicos más partidarios del pensamiento positivo han reconocido la amenaza del cambio climático. Ya no son solo unos cuantos hippies aislados los que piensan que las reservas mundiales de petróleo pueden haber empezado a agotarse. Los ‛apocalípticos’ van ganando terreno".

    Nice, eh?

  4. Ugo, I think there is some interesting social phenomenon going on here. Together with the expansion of the debt-inflated economy, I think it has been developing a new social mood whereby optimism and positive thinking is the only admissible way of dealing with human endeavors. I see it very clearly in the business sector, where even people expressing moderate doubts are marginalized, not just apocalyptic pessimists. It is true that some degree of optimism is necessary to keep us moving, but we tend to forget that pessimism has a healthy "double-checking" role.

  5. I am optimistic, Alex. It is question of being optimistic about the right things!

  6. Hello, Carles, nice to have a visit from "The Oil Crash". I am not sure how positive it is that "los apocaliptos" are gaining ground but, who knows, maybe someone will start believing in Cassandra?

  7. @Diego. It is a transient phase. The normal system of humankind is of peasant ruled by brigands and we are rapidly moving in that direction.

  8. BTW, about threatening scientists. This one appeared on Judith Curry's blog and was apparently approved (from http://www.grinzo.com/energy/2011/12/16/more-thuggery/).

    > When I got a look into the e-mail communications which Dr. Mann mistakenly assumed would never get into the hands of the people he’d been so successfully defrauding and suppressing, I confess that it got my Sicilian up, and I began recalling remote locations in the Pine Barrens – well within driving distance of Centre County, Pennsylvania – where a little work with some shovels and a sack of quicklime could serve a genuine public benefit.


  9. About the above, maybe native English speakers could explain to us what this guy means with "I got my sicilian up." Deeply offensive to Sicilians, anyway

  10. Ugo, the word “apocaliptics” is in quotes, so I prefer to think Ehrenreich is adopting an ironic stance. If you read the entire book and what she explains on “positive thinking", you can understand better this subtlety.

    On the other hand, it’s curious to check the growing number of books recently translated and published here in Spain on “our (brilliant) future”, e.g. Michio Kaku’s “La física del futuro” or Mark Stevenson’s “Un viaje optimista por el futuro”. One more “sign of the times”?

    Kind regards

  11. As an incorrigible skeptic, I still think "negative thinking" should be at least as important as positive thinking. Being optimistic about the right things is predicated on being able to separate what is "right" from what is not. That's where negative thinking comes into play...

  12. I think the dying girl was from Sudan, not Bangladesh.

  13. The thing is also about science always being viewed (or more and more) on its technoscience aspect, and usefulness or not, instead of simply science for science, or knwoledge.
    And where this kind of "usefulness religion" is maybe the more present is in IT or electronics, like below vid from microsoft for instance :

  14. In the US we're familiar with the phrase "(to) get my Irish up," alluding to the supposed irascibility of my own ethnic extraction. The phrase "get (one's) blood up" is of equivalent meaning: to get angry.

    In any event, I think you ought not take the writer's reference to Sicilians as slur or in any way perjorative, or if so, please consider the source: a member of the American booboisie, and a climate denier.

    Please keep up your excellent blog, and grazie.

  15. Thanks, anonymous, this is the way I had interpreted the sentence, indeed. But I do think it is a slur against Sicilians - incidentally, my wife's family is from Sicily and I took that sentence as personally offensive. I mean, it is ok to say that the Irish are irascible - I wouldn't be offended by that, not even if I were Irish. But to say that the common behavior of Sicilians involves the kind of things he describes, well, that's deeply offensive. This guy manages to be nasty for a lot of people with a single sentence - it takes some skill! Oh, well, this is the way these people are.

    Thanks for following my blog!