Updated: May 25
What is a marketing strategist doing writing about the definition of science?
Marketers carry a huge amount of responsibility, whether we recognise it or not. Our job literally is to persuade people: whether to believe, buy, vote, donate, volunteer or carry out any other action. To do that, we try to show our audiences that there are good reasons to trust what we say and believe that our messages are credible.
Science has been used as a way to give credibility to different ideas and persuade people of things in one way or another for a long time. Sometimes, the way it's done is valid…and sometimes not so much.
Unscrupulous communicators intentionally exploit scientific uncertainties or make poorly supported claims using pseudo-science (what I’d like to call ‘science-washing’) in order to mislead and misinform their audiences. Others may contribute to misinformation unintentionally, leading to similar problems. Spreading misinformation may encourage people to do things that - on top of being unhelpful for them or the planet - may indeed be quite harmful. So, it’s super important that we check that the information we communicate is accurate!
I think that if we have greater science literacy in the marketing profession, we can counter misinformation and green and other kinds of ‘washing’ in communications. If we care about working in an ethical way and finding real and effective solutions to our global environmental and social issues, we need to represent information and use terms correctly, not misuse or discredit them when convenient to benefit our bottom line.
It’s helpful to go to the beginning, and get clear on what ‘science’ means, what it means to be ‘scientifically accurate’, and be open about challenges with science so that we can use this incredible tool to improve the quality of the information we communicate.
There are a few key things to talk about here:
What science is and how it works.
The scientific community’s first branding issue: scientists don’t like to talk in absolutes.
The second branding challenge: there are ethical problems with some research done in the past and present.
Greenwashing and science-washing take advantage of misconceptions of how science works to breed misinformation.
What IS science?
Science is something really close to my heart. I went back to school in 2015 to complete my science degree that I started in 2002! I hung onto every single word that my professors said (well…most of the time!) and had my arm raised to ask about things they were about to explain all the time. (Yes, I was THAT person!)
One of the topics my professors sometimes brought up was the question, “what is science?” (which usually got a bunch of eye rolls and groans in response!). “Science” isn’t just a label that a bunch of scientists put on things. They don’t just look at things that are complicated, fold their arms across their chest and go, “that’s science!”. Nooooooo, they roll up their sleeves, and get to a very long process of studying said complicated thing.
You’ve heard of the scientific method? Well, science is just that - a methodology. For instance, “Biology is the scientific study of life” (Hills et al.). So, Biology isn’t life, it isn’t dogs or cells or a growing plant. It is the study of those things using structured methods.
Science is a methodology. It involves observing the same thing over and over and over in various ways (using spectrometers, rulers, counting, etc) for long periods of time to collect measurable data that can then be analyzed using statistics to give us an understanding of how stuff works. It's such a long process that it can actually get quite tedious…and even boring!
It needs to be measurable
Sometimes I hear, “well we just don’t have a way of measuring the thing yet” with regard to things people believe. Companies marketing dubious ‘wellness’ products, for example, or spiritually oriented ‘lifestyle’ brands, will sometimes try to persuade their audiences to ignore the fact that their claims are scientifically unfounded by pointing out that there are many phenomena that science can’t adequately explain.
However, even if we don’t yet fully understand how something works, we can measure whether the thing has an effect – and that is often done! Scientists will measure whether something is happening and discover through lots of observation and data crunching that, for example, “yes, acupuncture does seem to reduce stress, but we don’t yet fully know how it works” (Lin et al. 2022).
So, we’re ok with not knowing how something works! That happens all the time and is why many of us LOVE science - there’s always more research needed to figure stuff out, and it often leads to more questions and more research!! Muah ha ha!!
Science doesn’t tell us absolutes…usually!
Scientists don’t like to talk in absolutes - and that just doesn't ‘sell’ well!
Even when they understand that something has an effect, scientists don’t talk in certainties about stuff that is being newly studied. They will usually not say things like “climate change will lead to the sea level rising by 1.5 meters by 2029”. or “this was caused by this”. They will say things like “it looks likely that…”, or “physicists think that gravity works like this…”, or “it is suspected that…”. This all looks very wishy-washy and is really bad for branding!
However, there’s a reason for it!
Scientists use statistics to analyze data, but statistics can’t prove anything for certain. Instead, they can only show what is unlikely or less likely to be true, using probabilities based on assumptions. Even if the best assumptions are used, they are still based on theories and may not exactly match what actually happens in real life.
The process of understanding what isn’t true to get to the truth may seem a little counter intuitive – I mean, how can we possibly get to the truth by only finding out what’s not true! Well, I happen to love me a good murder mystery show, and this makes me think of when Detective Murdoch writes the names of all the suspects on a board, and one by one they get eliminated until there is only one clear answer…it’s kinda like that.
Therefore, scientists say what they think is going on – and why. Further, their assessments may be revised as new research and findings emerge, so they leave room for future research to make changes to our understanding. Scientists also know that there are always some errors in studies and they don’t want to ignore that!
As more and more research is done on a topic, scientists will make more confident statements about it. For instance, “cats can smell”, “the earth is round”, and “climate change is real and caused by humans'' are all statements that the scientific community will make because enough observations and studies have been done over a long period of time to show that these statements are correct and extremely unlikely to be proven untrue. (Yes, some cats may lack a sense of smell…just let me have this!). Matt Jacobs gave a great explanation of this using the example of gravity here. There are always uncertainties, but multiple studies show us the best info to go on at any given time.
I think the take-home is: the scientific method has its complicated processes to understand complicated things, and it works!
Science is built with many blocks
Beyond the lack of absolutes, science communication can be even more challenging because any single study’s results are not always consistent with other studies. This can happen because studies are conducted under different conditions that don’t clearly match up, and it can also be because some specific aspect of the study threw everything off, like there was a variable (perhaps the wind, air pressure, etc) wasn’t accounted for, and it caused the study to get different data. Sometimes it’s just that the issue or subject is extremely complex and there are a huge number of questions and variables to be examined.
This is why things are studied over and over and then ‘meta studies’ are done that take all of those individual studies into account to make
conclusions on the topic based on all the available research.
One result does not end the story. Research is an iterative process and knowledge is built over time.
Scientists have made mistakes but are learning
As I said earlier, science is a methodology. But, scientists are human, and humans have faults…sometimes big time.
The beliefs that scientists use to formulate research questions can sometimes be way off. For example, when science was conducted with a cultural backdrop of racism, anthropology research started from a belief that some people have less worth than others. That was really bad - to say the least. But, the disciplines are starting to challenge their own deeply held and culturally embedded views (Curnoe, 2016).
Secondly, how the research is carried out can be unethical; take, for example, animal testing. It’s really disappointing that animals are still used in lab research, especially for testing products, but there are many scientists who recognize that the practice needs to stop (Herrmann and Jayne, 2019).
Also, science has been used to create stuff that wasn’t great…nuclear bombs and single-use plastics for example. But…it’s also been used to create awesome things like ice cream and solar panels.
These ethical issues and how science has been used don’t tell us whether science is good or bad. Science is a methodology. It’s the ways people use it that I think we can assign judgments to. Scientific literature still gives us some of the most reliable and rigorous sources of information, so I stand by it in general.
Branding is all about trust
Science’s branding challenges can feel a bit frustrating, as they erode people’s trust in the scientific community. But I think there are opportunities for the scientific community to do some work on it!
One simple idea is to include a little explainer at the bottom of news reports. For instance, “Dr. Smith is saying this ‘may be the case' because, although this study is legit and important for our understanding, she wants to acknowledge that future research may discover other explanations.”
Stay tuned for future blog posts on other ideas to improve science’s branding!
Green- and science-washing take advantage of science’s branding issues
Because I’m particularly passionate about fighting greenwashing, I’ve wanted to write this post for a long time. As I mentioned at the beginning, misunderstandings around what science is, how it works and the uncertainties inherent in research have been used as a tool for greenwashing and science-washing.
The problem with misinformation is that if we don’t have legitimate reasoning, sufficient proof that an environmental concern is or isn’t a problem, or if we can’t validate that a solution will actually work, we can be going in the wrong direction and actually make things worse.
This has been a really sad result with plastic recycling! The plastics industry told us it would be great, we all believed them, and now we are finding out that it really isn’t…plastics recycling only captures and recycles less than 9% of plastics and the process creates microplastics that are found everywhere now, from the north pole to our brain cells (Hocevar, 2020; Prüst et al, 2020; Tirelli et al. 2022).
Nay-sayers try to use concepts or complexities in science to undermine established findings. For instance, climate deniers (usually drawing on messaging coming from big oil) will point out the one or two studies that showed that climate change may not be happening, drawing so much attention to it (that is to say, marketing it so heavily) that they make people dismiss the fact that 99.9% of 88,125 peer-reviewed scientific climate-related studies agree that climate change exists and is mainly caused by humans (Ramanujan, 2021).
As we know, sometimes studies on the same topic don’t seem to agree with each other. This is also something that climate deniers have taken advantage of, saying: “there are studies that show it isn’t really happening” and then people think, “well this science thing can’t be legit if their studies don’t agree with each other!”
On the other hand, ‘It’s science' gets mentioned sometimes as a way to give credence to things and try to make stuff look credible – science washing! For instance, beliefs and practices that are spiritual or mystical in nature are sometimes given the veneer of scientific support by people who want to convince others of the legitimacy of their beliefs. It would be more authentic to call it just that: spiritual or mystical, rather than trying to justify it with a label that isn’t accurate.
If you want to use the term science, change ‘it’s science' to ‘it has been scientifically shown that _____ has an effect…’ - and make sure that it has been studied by qualified researchers and that they got verifiable results!
I would LOVE to see more marketing and communications refer to the scientific literature. Without it, especially now that AI is on the rise, I’m afraid that more and more comms will have misinformation.
Google Scholar is a really great resource for scientific journal articles. If you can’t access a whole study, at least you can see the conclusions in the abstract. Here is an article that shares how to understand scientific journal articles. And if you ever want to know what the scientific community thinks about a topic, look up ‘meta study on ____’. I promise it won’t have anything to do with Facebook.
As a marketer, my job is literally to persuade people of things. I know this might sound icky. But I believe that it can be done ethically - and heck, sometimes persuasion is just about using pretty colors and fonts to sell stuff that's good for both people and the planet!
I strongly believe that greenwashing and manipulation with pseudo-science can be overcome through growing greater science literacy in our society and among communicators. By representing information accurately and by being transparent about our sources, we can promote solutions and the actions our society takes to resolve many of our environmental and social issues.
I hope this helps to shed some light on what science is and how it is relevant to marketing, and inspires you to become a bit of a science communicator yourself! If you need support with this or would like someone else to do the legwork, get in touch!
What do you think - will you join me in the battle to fight misinformation and greenwashing by incorporating a bit more research into your marketing? Let me know if I can help!!
Curnoe, Darren. “The biggest mistake in the history of science.” The Conversation, 2016, https://theconversation.com/the-biggest-mistake-in-the-history-of-science-70575 Accessed 19 May 2023.
Herrmann, Kathrin; Jayne, Kimberley. Animal Experimentation: Working Towards a Paradigm Change, Human-Animal Studies, Vol: 22, 2019. https://brill.com/edcollbook-oa/title/35072
Hillis, David M.; Heller, H. Craig; Hacker, Sally D.; Laskowski, Marta J.; Sadava, David E. "Studying life". Life: The Science of Biology (12th ed.). W. H. Freeman, 2020.
Hocevar, John. “Circular Claims Fall Flat: Comprehensive U.S. Survey of Plastics Recyclability”. Greenpeace, 2020, https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/reports/circular-claims-fall-flat-again/ Accessed 19 May 2023.
“How science works” Berkeley University of California,
https://undsci.berkeley.edu/understanding-science-101/how-science-works/ Accessed 19 May 2023.
Lin, Jaung-Geng, Peddanna Kotha, and Yi-Hung Chen. "Understandings of acupuncture application and mechanisms." American Journal of Translational Research 14.3 (2022): 1469. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8991130/
Prüst, Minne, Jonelle Meijer, and Remco HS Westerink. "The plastic brain: neurotoxicity of micro-and nanoplastics." Particle and fibre toxicology. 17.1 (2020): 1-16. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32513186/
Ramanujan, Krishna. “More than 99.9% of studies agree: Humans caused climate change” Cornell Chronicle, 2021, https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2021/10/more-999-studies-agree-humans-caused-climate-change
“Science has limits: A few things that science does not do.” Berkeley University of California, https://undsci.berkeley.edu/understanding-science-101/what-is-science/science-has-limits-a-few-things-that-science-does-not-do/ Accessed 19 May 2023.
Tirelli, V., G. Suaria, and Amy L. Lusher. "Microplastics in polar samples." Handbook of Microplastics in the Environment. (2022): 281-322. https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007/978-3-030-39041-9_4