Saturday, April 07, 2007

How Jim Made Me Pessimistic About Scientists Selling Evolution

Mike Dunford at The Questionable Authority recently wrote a thoughtful response to an article that appeared in the journal Science. The Science article deals with the need of scientists to radically improve how they communicate with non-scientists on the issue of evolution, and calls on scientists to adopt some proven marketing methods.

Scientists and marketers are a bit like cats and dogs. The two just don't get along that well, except when a few scientists conspire with the marketers to discover more effective ways of impressing on us that happiness depends on having a brand of toothpaste that promotes sex appeal. Other than in unholy marriages like that one, scientists and marketers usually go their separate ways.

Reading Mike's comments on the Science article, I was reminded of a time many years ago when I hired a professor to do some telemarketing. The professor wanted to do the telemarketing because he was seriously considering dropping out of academia, hitting the road, and never looking back, but he first needed to learn a job skill besides that of being a professor.

His new job was to call up high school teachers, ask if they wanted to renew their subscription to a professional journal, and take their order if they said "yes". Callers were guaranteed an hourly rate (minimum wage), but were expected to make their real money on the commission they earned for each order. The average caller earned a little over $18/hour.

Jim, the professor, did worse than expected. Much worse.

Day after day, he brought in a paltry 15 to 25 orders, and consequently his commissions were so low that he hit the guaranteed minimum wage time and again. I decided to work with him to see what it was he didn't understand about the job.

Jim bluntly told me he found it immoral to sell people on doing something they would not otherwise do. He admitted his orders were few, but maintained the reason for that was because he was only taking orders from people who wanted to renew their subscriptions, rather than selling people who didn't want to renew their subscriptions on renewing them anyway.

Yet, there was something Jim didn't know. He didn't know that in telemarketing there is such a thing as an "order rate". Briefly, the order rate is the average rate at which a telemarketer will take orders -- if he or she does no selling whatsoever.

The order rate is distinct from the "sales rate", which is the average rate at which a telemarketer will take orders if he or she is actually selling the product rather than just gathering orders for the product. Both the order rate and the sales rate can be discovered by analysing the call statistics after running an experiment or two. I knew the order rate for that operation and I knew Jim was actually performing below it.

That is, he was worse than neutral. He was actually discouraging people who wanted to renew their subscriptions from renewing them.

Ironically, Jim was one of my best sales people. He was so far below the order rate, the only reasonable conclusion was that he had a gift for selling people on not doing what they wanted to do.

To be sure, Jim was not a scientist. And if he had been a scientist, he would not necessarily be representative of other scientists. But Mike Dunford's article on the need for scientists to get more savvy about marketing evolution brought Jim to mind because I've been seeing plenty of science blogs that do exactly what Jim was doing many years ago: They are almost certainly negative sells. Instead of persuading people to believe in evolution, I strongly suspect many science blogs are persuading people to disbelieve evolution. At least, that's my hunch.

Offhand, I can think of three ways many science blogs drive people away from evolution:

  • Foremost, many science blogs turn people off by intentionally insulting creationists and IDers. It is no more than an adolescent fantasy you can efficiently persuade people through insulting them.
  • Second, many science blogs turn people off by systematically writing about evolution in an insider's language, then failing to explain their terms. That comes across as exclusion, more than anything else.
  • Last, many science blogs turn people off by failing to mention any advantages or benefits to believing in evolution. Whether we like it or not, people need to be reminded what's in it for them.

That's not to say all science blogs are alike. There are some excellent ones that aren't turning people off to evolution. But -- again -- I suspect too many are. More over, it seems to me that our species of chimpanzee has a hard enough time reconciling itself to truth, and we really don't need to make that job harder than it already is.

I sometimes suspect the public debate over evolution/creationism/intelligent design is likely to be won by the side with the best public relations. The scientists have always had truth on their side, but the truth has so far not been enough. Maybe it really is time for the scientists to learn a thing or two from marketing, then apply it to the Grand Debate.

UPDATE: After posting this late last night, I learned that Coturnix at Blog Around the Clock had written an excellent article on this subject in which he goes into depth on how to apply the technique of "framing" to the Grand Debate over evolution/creation/intelligent design.

UPDATE: For anyone interested, I have made a brief, modest suggestion about how to win the public debate over evolution here.


bookster said...

My first time here, i like your blog!

Would you call a poet, a street philosopher?

Paul Sunstone said...

Thank you for your kind words about my blog, Corgiguy!

You ask an interesting question. If I understand what you mean by "street philospher", then, yes, I think at least some poets are street philosophers -- and sometimes quite good ones at that.

Then again, there are poets who seem more profound on some subjects than many formal philosophers.

I would certainly be willing to call a poet a street philosopher in a poem. :)

bookster said...


I'm trying to to get my head around this subject. It seems to me a poet is closer to painter or artist. The poet uses words to present a feeling/idea.

As where a philosopher is like a detective, and uses inquiry to make sense of things. A street philospher has no formal way of doing his inquiry, just a gut feel, more like a policeman.

Paul Sunstone said...


Ah, now I think I understand what you mean by "street philosopher". Yes, I would agree with you that poets are closer to artists -- in fact, I think of poets as artists, and think of poetry as an art.

But I also believe artists, philosophers and scientists have much in common. There are some significant differences between them, perhaps, but all of them seem to me on a path of inquiry -- each by his or her own means.

K.C. Cole writes eloquently of artists, scientists, philosophers and theologians in Chapter Four of her book, First You Build A Cloud. It's a brief little chapter, but well worth reading, I think, if you are interested in the relationships between those four disciplines.

bookster said...

Paul, you might enjoy this short poem by FERNANDO PESSOA, frm portugal.

O poeta é um fingidor
Finge tão completamente
Que chega a fingir que é dor
A dor que deveras sente
The poet is a pretender
Who's so good at his act
He even pretends to be pain
The pain he feels in fact

Paul Sunstone said...

Thank you for sharing that, Corgiguy!

I'm going to copy the poem to a blog post.