This is the first in a series of posts on presentations given at Beyond Belief 3: Candles in the Dark"
You can find a list of all Atheist Ethicist blog postings covering Beyond Belief 3 at the Introduction post
And I would like to encourage you to give a contribution to the Science Network, who makes these presentations available for free.
As I mentioned, I was invited to actually attend the Beyond Belief conference this year. In This video of Roger Bingham's opening remarks you will find me in the video as the audience member with the black vest and maroon shirt. What I was thinking, while I listened to each presentation, was, "What will I write about what person is saying?"
It is not an accident that I spent this week on my blog writing about the need for those opposed to anti-atheist bigotry to publicly respond to that bigotry – and how to respond. That is a thought that came to my mind as I listened to Bingham’s introduction to the series – with one minor change.
The Science Network set up "Candles in the Dark" to provide an opportunity for scientists to provide solutions to current problems. The presenters were asked to present some problem in their field of study or interest that science can help to provide an answer to. We will see that few presenters actually paid attention to that motto. However, it was still Bingham’s wish, as he expressed in his introduction.
He also lamented the fact that science does not get the respect it deserves in the public eye. He spoke about the Republican war on science – the idea that it makes any type of sense for a political operative to rewrite a scientific report so that the findings support the administration's policies. Some of us think that this is backwards – that when there is a conflict between policy and reality, that the policy be adjusted to conform to reality. The assumption that bureaucrats can rewrite reality to conform to policy is simply absurd.
He showed Oprah Winfrey's library, which she is very proud of, and lamented that there is not one book in the collection that has anything to do with science. He expressed a wish that public figures would use some of their power to promote a public interest in science. However, he expressed it merely as a dream, not as a plan of action.
My thought was that, if you have a product that you think has value, and you think that there is reason to sell it, then you should set up some sort of program whose job it is to sell that product.
We have, for example, a campaign that promotes milk (milk: It does a body good.). We have a campaign that promotes pork (the other white meat), beef (it's what's for dinner), Virginia (it’s for lovers), Las Vegas (what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas).
I do not know of any campaign in existence, or anybody even working on a campaign, to sell science.
Of course, how do you get started with such a campaign? If one wanted to sell science, how does one begin?
This question explains why I decided to spend a couple of posts leading up to the Beyond Belief series discussing the response to anti-atheist bigotry, because the two problems are related.
What you do is you go out to people who have some money to spend who might recognize the value of promoting this particular project and you say, "We need some money to launch a campaign to market science."
They will then ask, "What will you do with the money?"
The answer is, "We will hire a marketing firm – somebody familiar with television, radio, web broadcasting, billboards, print advertising, mass mailings, and the like, and we will ask them to design and run a campaign for us. They will give us a proposal and a budget and, if we like the proposal, we will give them the money."
Of course, part of the campaign will be to raise more money. I see no sense in spending $50,000 to promote something unless the promotion brings $60,000 in additional contributions, which can then be spent on a project that brings in more contributions. Yet, the same firms that are useful in public relations are typically also trained in fundraising. After all, they want to be paid and they want to make things as easy on their customers as possible. I suspect that such an agency would be very helpful.
There are a couple of questions to be asked first. The first is, do we really have a sellable product?
Science is a product that keeps most of us alive. It gives us food to eat, provides us with energy, allows a simple person like me to communicate with people all around the world every day, allows us to visit places we would never otherwise see, cures and prevents disease, warns us of upcoming hurricanes and tsunamis and warns us as to whether the levees will hold if we are not so stupid as to ignore science. It allows us to build buildings that can withstand earthquakes, identify murderers and rapists, heats and cools our homes and warn us of global changes in time for us to actually take action to address them.
Science definitely has a lot of value. To the degree that anti-science is the norm, to that degree we suffer from our ignorance.
There is, as it turns out, a free rider problem associated with selling science. If I can get you to pay for promoting science, then I get the benefits without suffering any of the costs. The same is true of you. If I am busy promoting science, then you get the benefits of my actions without suffering any of the cost. The result is that nobody pays the cost, and the benefits are not realized.
However, the problem of free riders exists in a number of areas where people ask for contributions. In a political campaign, I am better off if my candidate wins the election and I contribute nothing to the campaign than I am if my candidate wins and I have contributed $1000. And the odds that my contribution is what will determine the outcome of the campaign is rather slight. Yet, in spite of this free rider problem, people contribute to political campaigns.
Professional fundraisers have had to deal with this problem for a long time. They have found ways to mitigate it. For example, they establish a system where contributors get personal, public recognition. Another method is that they give different levels of contributors different ranks, with special services and recognition given to those who have the highest rank. For example, heavy political contributors get invited to special dinners in which they are given access to the candidates and elected officials.
The point being that the professionals, in this case, have the knowhow to deal with these issues.
You would not construct a house by showing your plans to your friends and soliciting feedback. You would not perform brain surgery by reading about it on the internet. You should not organize a campaign without consulting experts in that field. Expertise will pay for itself in terms of greater efficiency – being able to do more with less money, and being able to raise more money.
I am a major fan of consulting with experts when you want to get something done. If the question is, “How do we increase the prestige that science has in the public mind,” my answer is, “Don’t ask me. Ask an expert in the field and get to work.”