There goes the science bit

I caught sight of something on Page 3 of my newspaper today that made me smile.
It’s ok. It wasn’t The Sun.
No, in the Cape Times, under the punchy headline:

Scientists expose pseudoscience in extravagent claims made by advertisers[link]

I learnt about this organisation, The Voice Of Young Scientists. Young Scientists, I used to be one of them, I smiled ruefully. Then I stopped being rueful and got on with reading the article.
Basically, the VOYS has been going around and challenging companies to explain what exactly in the sciencey bits of their adverts mean. It seems that many of them don’t have a clue.
This doesn’t come as a great surprise to me. The claims made in adverts have long been the bane of my life, as my long-suffering missus will testify. She now leaves the room at the first sign of a Nivea model on the TV, abandoning me to my rant over their range which, the commercial boldly proclaims, “contains coenzyme Q10 plus R”*. Now, Q10 I have no problem with. Lovely stuff. But “R”?
R“?!?!? WTF is “R“?!?!?
It’s called “baffling with bullshit”. Assign something a letter, stick it in the advert and the consumer will lap it up – or rub it on their cheeks in this case. (The cream, not the bullshit.)

“Ooh look Betty! It’s got “R” in it!”
“Yes, haven’t they come a long way since the 60’s when we only had “A” and “B”?”

These methods, of course, are not new. Scientists, Engineers, Lawyers and, most of all, Medical Doctors have been using unnecessary terminology to maintain their lofty positions in society for years. I hate it. One of the most important things I have learnt during my career is that presentations, explanations, even informal chats about work and technical stuff should always be pitched according to ones audience. Sure, chat to the Prof about Extended Spectrum Beta-Lactamase producing Gram Negative Bacilli, call them ESBLs – he’ll understand. But when you’re explaining it to your mum, call them “superbugs” – and then she’ll understand too. Otherwise you’re wasting your time.
Society continues to beg for scraps at the head table, begging for more “dumbing down” so that it can join in with the big boys in their big words world Steve Grand wrote about this just a week after I left the UK. I guess he was missing me already.

VOYS have a downloadable booklet detailing some of their encounters with various companies and their outrageous claims, cleverly entitled “There Goes The Science Bit”. It’s actually a bit dry, but worth a read just to see what Pret-a-Manger, Ski Yoghurt and Clarins (amongst others) are saying their products can do. As VOYS puts it:

“Some people we spoke to disavowed responsibility.
Others were able to link their claims to science, albeit from a galaxy far, far away.”

*Nivea do have nice models though.

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