When Science Becomes Dogma

I may lose some friends out there, but I have to speak up about a phenomenon I’ve noticed over the past few years. It came to the fore for me with the recent story about the battle between the TV meteorologists over stripping the American Meteorological Society certification from any weatherman who expresses skepticism about the degree to which global warming can be blamed on human activity.

My intention here is not to do battle over the facts of global warming, so please don’t leave me comments listing all the reasons why it is or is not an environmental catastrophe. I am less a global warming skeptic than a global warming agnostic — I am not convinced yet either way, but I’m open to the data.

My concern is that global warming has become on par with religious dogma. When anyone, including legitimate scientists, dares to present contradictory data or a different interpretation of current data, they are attacked and harassed. It is assumed that they have evil intentions or are shills for the oil industry. Anyone who does not toe the global warming party line is considered akin to Holocaust deniers. Any data that deviates from the established doctrine is dismissed as biased or not worth looking at.

This is a problem. Science should not be politicized. A particular interpretation of the data should not be taken as the gospel from on high. Our knowledge of science evolves over time. Just a few decades ago, scientists were concerned about the catastrophic effects of global cooling and the coming Ice Age. Going even further back, to the 1630s, Galileo was convicted of heresy by the Church for supporting the radical Copernican theory that the Earth revolves around the sun, rather than the other way around. We should not be subjecting scientists to another Inquisition because they do not agree with commonly accepted ideas. Science does not advance without people who are willing to challenge the dominant paradigm.

While there is some consensus among scientists, there is a huge degree of uncertainty in the models that are being used to predict the future. Meteorologists can’t even predict the weather for next week accurately. To speak of global warming as something that is definitely happening is going way beyond the limits of the data. When everything that happens with the weather is attributed to man-made global warming, the credibility of the claims start coming into doubt. But “maybes” don’t make good news stories.

I have no doubt that most people who are concerned about global warming are well-meaning individuals who want to do the right thing for the planet. I don’t intend this as an attack on those who believe that global warming is a problem we need to address, but rather those who “believe in” global warming as if it were a religious doctrine that cannot be challenged.

I see a parallel with the dogma around evolution — on both sides. Some fundamentalists who reject the scientific version of how life evolved accept as creed that the Earth is about 6000 years old and that dinosaurs lived at the same time as humans before the great flood. I’ll give them a pass on being dogmatic, though — this is their religion, after all. But many evolutionists cling just as tightly to Darwinism, despite the fact that there are holes in the fossil record and big gaps in our knowledge about exactly how life evolves. Until we understand better how evolution works and how to answer some of the remaining questions, we should not assume that Darwin is necessarily the final word on how life came to exist, though it might be the best model we have right now. And why can’t the Bible and science co-exist? MIT-trained nuclear physicist Gerald Schroeder has written some amazing books that use quantum physics and the theory of relativity to reconcile the two precisely.

Similarly, there are things people on both sides of the global warming debate should be able to agree on, even if they do so for different reasons. Changing our energy consumption habits and taking care of the environment are goals that most people can get behind. In any case, I don’t think that the specter of global warming is immediate or concrete enough to get most people to take action to prevent something that may or may not happen in a hundred years or more. It’s just too big of a problem for an individual to feel that they can make an impact. But show people how they can save money by conserving energy, reduce their dependence on foreign oil by driving a hybrid, keep humans and wildlife healthy by reducing pollutants… this could get people motivated to act.

Scaring the public and silencing dissenters is not the way to bring about effective change. If only our leaders could put the same energy into solving the problems people face right here and now in terms of disease, poverty, and violence, we would all be better off in the future whether or not the climate eventually changes for the worse.

One thing is certain: what we know about the science of climate can and will change over time. The most shortsighted thing would be to close our minds to evidence that might bring us closer to the objective truth, whatever it happens to be.

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Pictures Louder than Words

This amazing picture of second trimester triplets in the womb is part of a series of 4D ultrasound scans created for a National Geographic special. Sometimes pictures truly do speak louder than words, and who can doubt that a pregnant woman seeing a picture like this of her own baby would bond even more than she might otherwise with the moving bump in her tummy. When social marketers promote prenatal care and healthy habits for mothers-to-be (e.g., not smoking or drinking alcohol, eating nutritiously, etc.), pictures like these can help to make that abstract baby more real. If the technology gets to the point that everybody’s 18-week ultrasound is this detailed (and not just those who can go to the boutique ultrasound storefronts), I think we will see women being even more conscientious about how well they take care of themselves (and thereby their babies) during pregnancy.

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Does Your Idea Pass the SAT (Stickiness Aptitude Test)?

Guy Kawasaki just posted an interview with Chip and Dan Heath of Made to Stick fame. It’s definitely worth a read.

For fun, he’s put together the Stickiness Aptitude Test (SAT), for you to see how well you are applying the concepts from the book. Not all questions will be applicable to your specific situation, but you can get an idea of how to interpret them by seeing the point value scores listed by each answer.

Sometimes the right answers are counterintuitive:

Is there someone on your marketing team who fundamentally does not understand the technology that underlies your idea?

  • Yes (bonus + 4 points)
  • No (0 points)
  • (This relates to the “Curse of Knowledge” that makes it harder for you to communicate your idea clearly when you know so much about the subject that you can’t conceive of not understanding its basic underlying concepts.)

    And sometimes the questions pinpoint some key approaches to use to make your idea stickier:

    Can you describe your idea in the way Hollywood directors often pitch their movies, with a simple analogy? (E.g., the movie that became Alien was pitched as “Jaws on a spaceship.”)

  • Yes (+ 2 points)
  • No (0 points)
  • (People can understand your idea better when it’s connected to something they already are familiar with.)

    Even if you haven’t read the book yet, take the SAT and you’ll probably learn at least one new thing that you can start applying right away.

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    Who Asked Them? Unwanted Celebrity Spokespeople

    Nowadays you can’t go a week without hearing some celebrity talking about a health or social issue — either their own medical problem or one they feel is important enough to comment on. Generally, this is a good thing because it raises awareness, which may lead to changes in public behavior. Laura Bush recently publicized her own bout with skin cancer, which will hopefully have the effect of increasing awareness of skin cancer prevention and screening. Lance Armstrong may have singlehandedly caused hundreds of cases of testicular cancer to be caught early (pun not intended!), by speaking out about his own experience and encouraging men to screen themselves. Katie Couric felt so strongly about the importance of being screened for colon cancer after her husband died from it that she had an on-air colonoscopy on the Today Show, increasing nationwide testing by 20%.

    But what do you do when celebrities make public statements about an issue that are just plain wrong, and even worse, detrimental to your cause? Tom Cruise’s spoutings off about postpartum depression being merely the result of insufficient exercise and vitamins may have prevented women suffering from the condition to avoid antidepressants or psychiatric treatment that would help them. Anna Nicole Smith endorsed weight-loss drug TrimSpa, for which its marketers were recently fined millions of dollars for deceptive advertising claims. Madonna certainly brought attention to the issue of child adoption, but should she serve as a model for potential adoptive parents? (Angelina Jolie doesn’t think so!)

    Bob Brody of Ogilvy has a useful guide on how to create celebrity health campaigns. But how do you do damage control when a celebrity not affiliated with your program spouts off nonsense? For better or worse, when celebrities speak, people listen. Certainly not everybody cares what Paris Hilton or Brad Pitt has to say, but perhaps it’s more likely to be those who do not have the basic health or science knowledge to realize that the beautiful people are speaking bunk.

    A British organization called Sense About Science is taking on these celebrity self-appointed advocates and armchair scientists who claim to know the real truth (Tom Cruise: “Here’s the problem. You don’t know the history of psychiatry. I do… There is no such thing as a chemical imbalance.”), by offering good science and promoting respect for evidence on issues ranging from alternative medicine to bird flu, stem cell research and genetic modification of crops. (via Instapundit)

    The incorrect statements need to be countered with logic and peer-reviewed research, indeed, but social marketing efforts can take advantage of the celebrity’s status to get out accurate information. Using the story of what the celebrity said as a news peg for your own information gives a reporter both the lure of being able to write about that celebrity again and to cover the conflict and controversy — especially if yours is a well-respected organization taking on a popular personality. And don’t just talk to the media, but contact the person who is spreading the inaccurate information and offer the benefit of your expertise so that if they truly do want to be an effective advocate, they will be able to speak from a position of real authority rather than the flimsy spotlight of the red carpet.

    Right now, I’m reading a book sent to me by the publisher called When Illness Goes Public: Celebrity Patients and How We Look at Medicine by Barron H. Lerner, which I think will speak to some of these issues. I’ll revisit this topic once I’ve had a chance to get through the book.

    Photo Credit: nicklee

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    Great Openings

    I just received a fundraising letter that blew me away with its opening line. It says:
    Dear Friends,

    In our world of “I’s” — ipods, ibooks, itunes, imacs… I wants — the Zimmer Children’s Museum and its outreach programs teach children I care…I value…I support…I lead…I give…

    Someone hire that copywriter! Fundraising is not generally within my purview, so I’m not going to use this post to teach you how to do it. Luckily, Katya has a great post from a couple of weeks ago on exactly this — how to write an effective opening line for a fundraising letter. She says:

    Remember, an A+ letter grabs you from the first line by speaking to your values and presenting you with a compelling reason to act that is relevant to those values.

    Grade: A+

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    Made to Stick

    I’ve just finished reading what I predict will be the most influential marketing book of 2007. I received a prepublication copy of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, written by brothers Chip and Dan Heath, which will be released in January. It’s all about how to create ideas with a lasting impact. The book picks up from where Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point left off, with the idea of the “stickiness” of an innovation making it more likely that it will spread across a population. The Heaths’ book tells us how to make our ideas sticky — in other words, how do you present an idea in a way that leaves a lasting impression?

    The book is filled with great anecdotes and examples of sticky ideas (both good and bad): the urban myth about a friend of a friend who wakes up and finds his kidney has been stolen, Subway’s campaign featuring Jared, Nordstrom’s reputation for customer service, and many more. In fact, a large number of the examples are tailor-made for social marketers, with a health, social or environmental focus — CSPI’s campaign against high-saturated fat movie popcorn, American foreign aid, the Truth campaign, oral rehydration therapy, the Nature Conservancy’s campaign to save the Mt. Hamilton Wilderness…

    The Brothers Heath have come up with the requisite acronym that conveys the six principles of sticky ideas – SUCCESs. While none of the principles are in and of themselves revelations, it is in the distillation and systemization of the guidelines that the book shines. The principles are:

    1. Simplicity – Boil down the idea to its essential core, so that if the recipient of the message remembers nothing but this one point, they get the idea.
    2. Unexpectedness – Be counterintuitive and use surprise and/or curiosity to grab people’s attention.
    3. Concreteness – Make the idea meaningful by explaining it in human and sensory terms rather than as abstract concepts.
    4. Credibility – Provide ways of letting people test the idea out for themselves to prove its credentials.
    5. Emotions – Get people to care about your idea by making them feel a strong emotion about themselves or someone else.
    6. Stories – Use stories to provide a vicarious experience, illustrate a point or inspire an action.

    All of these are, of course, common sense. However, what often gets in our way of utilizing these principles is what they call the “Curse of Knowledge.” When we know so much about an issue, our knowledge can get in our way of expressing ourselves clearly because it becomes hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. We use terms that we say so often to our peers that we assume that everyone knows what they mean. And when we try to distill our knowledge into concise bullet points, the people we are talking to miss out on the stories and experiences that led to us learning those lessons, which make them so obvious to us but lacking in interest to others.

    This is why all marketers — especially social marketers — must get a copy of Made to Stick when it comes out next month. The stories and case studies used to illustrate the points above make the ideas come alive and help to make the ideas in the book stick. The book is well-written, engaging and readable. In fact, I’m going to go back and reread the book with an eye toward incorporating its ideas into my own trainings.

    Read an excerpt from the book and then order it as a gift for yourself for the new year.

    ***Self-Congratulatory Note: This is my 200th post!! If you enjoy reading my blog and are still doing so by coming directly to the website each time, please consider subscribing to my RSS feed (here’s a simple guide to how to do it). To receive my blog posts by e-mail, just plug your e-mail address into the Feedblitz form on the right side of the page. Thanks for reading!***

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