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


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)