Companies Buying Science for Cheap Publicity

August 1, 2008 at 10:28 am (Business, Media Whores) (, , , , , , , , )

The Bad Science blog has a category titled Cash for “Stories” and the Apathy Sketchpad blog has recently covered equations in The Telegraph and the Daily Mail. It occurs to me that, rather than demeaning science and making media whores of academics (usually mathemeticians or scientists as far as I can tell), the firms buying science for cheap publicity could actually get publicity and make themselves look good by sponsoring worthwhile research. Instead of commissioning a group of scientists to work out ‘how to make the perfect cup of tea’ or paying a mathemetician to come up with a bullshit equation for ‘the perfect…’, they could sponsor something that would add to the sum of human knowledge and possibly even help us with some aspect of, say, medical science.

I think that businesses buying joke equations may contribute to a public perception of scientists spending their days doing wacky research that has no relation to or bearing on everyday life as experienced by said public. I’ve actually heard people blame scientists for ‘pissing around with stupid experiments like why bread always falls butter side down’ instead of curing cancer. I don’t think it occurs to them that these scientists are only researching toast because Mr Bun the Baker has paid them to. If he paid them to research something more worthwhile then they would probably do so. The same goes for Mr Teabag and his ‘perfect cuppa’ or Mrs Travel Agent and her ‘most depressing day’ equation.

I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with business sponsoring science, I’d just prefer it if the research was worthwhile, rather than being pseudo-research that makes a mockery of science and turns the scientists and mathematicians responsible into corporate whores. The public understanding of science isn’t that great – we could really do with improving the situation and business buying cheap publicity through science certainly doesn’t help.

[*Mind you, neither does Lionel Milgrom with his PoMo nonsense (see shpalman for more), John Briffa with his own peculiar philosophy of science (APGaylard has a good post on this) or Patrick Holford with his misrepresentation of the science (see HolfordWatch or BadScience for more on PH). Claiming a meta analysis of RCTs was biased because it didn’t include two association studies that happened to have results and conclusions he liked? Oh dear. For more on Holford’s lack of understanding of RCTs, you can click here and listen to the excellent Tom Sanders on Radio 4’s Rise of The Lifestyle Nutritionists].


  1. pj said,

    Problem is, equation stories are basically guaranteed news coverage, and don’t cost much to bribe the ‘scientist’ to put their name to it – real science is expensive, and apart from those rare truly groundbreaking studies, it takes more PR manipulation and half-truths to get into the media.

    So why would these companies bother?

  2. jdc325 said,

    “So why would these companies bother?”
    That’s one of the problems with my suggestion – there’s not really anything in it for them.

  3. modestypress said,

    Maybe somebody could figure out “sandwhich experiments”; half real useful science with no quick commerical payoff and half sounds really cool and gets headlines and favorable publicity without costing that much or wasting too much of the scientist’s time.

  4. jdc325 said,

    Thanks for the comment modestypress. I was trawling for equation posts earlier today, following today’s Bad Science piece about the latest PR guff that’s made the news, and I found an older piece on Apathy Sketchpad I hadn’t picked up on when looking for pages to link to from this post – Christmas Cake.

    Nintendo’s PR company know this too, because they’re Very Clever Scientists. They’re a company called Cake, and they’ve done two pieces of Very Clever Science lately. The first was for Nintendo, and it was a study into how much energy you burn playing Wii. And it turns out, it’s not much. Though they have to be commended for doing a proper, albeit very small, trial and publishing the result anyway.

    So at least one proper trial has been published in order to generate cheap publicity. If they can do it, why can’t others?

  5. jdc325 said,

    They know they hardly understand maths, or science, but that they think it’s clever, that all science is arbitrary, that boffins just make stuff up, so you might just as well too. They add nothing to our understanding of any subject, and as for making maths “accessible” or “cool” – like Christian rock, perhaps – they don’t do anything for anyone, if they’re just plain wrong.

    From today’s Bad Science Blog Post.

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