What is science? And how do you define a scientist?
Anyone who has given these questions any serious thought will realise that these are not trivial questions and they continue to exercise the philosophers of science. It might then appear quite harsh to then criticise the UK Advertising Standards Authority who recently were asked to decide upon just this issue.
An anonymous complaint was made to the Advertising Standards Authority about a booklet advert for Neal’s Yards health and beauty products. It contained a section headed ‘Green Science’ and showed four members of staff, posing in white lab coats, asking their readers to “Meet Our Green Scientists Who Make It All Happen”. The complaint challenged if the people in the advert were “were qualified enough to be considered scientists”.
Now, I would suggest that this is the wrong sort of complaint to be making. However, the ASA’s response was not up to its usual rigorous standards and appeared to be very confused about the nature of science.
Let us look at Neal’s Yard’s response and the ASA conclusions in some detail:
Neal’s Yard (Natural Remedies) Ltd (NYR) said the term “scientist” was legitimately used in numerous ways and applied to many and varied disciplines. They said the term used to be narrowly applied to somebody that framed and tested hypotheses, but it was now used more widely, stating that the British Science Association had encouraged a discussion of the term and acknowledged a more inclusive description of what a scientist was.
We should immediately start to get concerned that Neal’s Yard are going to engage in Humpty Dumptyism, where words mean “just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less”, as Humpty Dumpty explained to Alice in Through the Looking Glass. NYR are suggesting that the word ‘scientist’ should not be defined too tightly and be more inclusive, but fail to set the boundaries as to what they think they should be. In short, NYR are setting themselves up to allow the term ‘scientist’ to mean whatever they want it to mean. I am sure the British Science Association (and I can find no relevant reference to this) do not mean that the term ‘scientist’ should become so open as to become meaningless.
NYR said they developed and sold products that were often referred to as alternative or natural therapies, and had customers who understood and wanted to know more about such therapies. Because of that, they had a shared culture with their customers, and believed they were likely to understand the use of the term scientist in a wider context. They said they had also noted that science was beginning to be viewed more widely, such as the emergence of “green science”, defined by Carnegie Mellon University as “the application of eco-friendly thinking to scientific disciplines” and “a holistic approach to sustainability science”.
NYR now explain that when they use the term ‘scientist’ they were using it in a way that was congruent with their customers understanding of the word. And that by implication that understanding might be different from other ‘cultures’ such as those who might consider themselves mainstream scientists. That is a massive assumption – and at the heart of what the ASA should have been considering. What is the evidence for this? It is likely that as a High Street chain of shops, Neal’s Yard have customers from all sorts of ‘cultures’. How an they be so sure that their use of the term ‘scientist’ coincides with their customer base’s understanding of the word? After all, many people just buy expensive soaps and bathroom products from them. You do not need to have a New Age understanding of words such as ‘scientist’ to buy some shower gel.
In order to now draw a distinction between their view of science over a supposed ‘narrow’ view, they appeal to the authority of an American University who are supposed to be defining what ‘green science’ is.
However, the only reference I can find to their definition of ‘green science’ (“the application of eco-friendly thinking to scientific disciplines”) comes from the web site HowStuffWorks, a wholly owned subsidiary of Discovery Communications. It is unusual for the ASA not to check things like that. It is true that Carnegie Mellon do have an Institute for Green Science that does indeed state that it has “a holistic approach to sustainability science”. However, there is nothing here to suggest that their concept of science is any different to other scientists – merely that they are using science to add to our understanding of such technologies as solar power.
Finally, NYR responded,
However they said that even if the narrowest definition of scientist was applied they were satisfied that the four women would be qualified and experienced enough to be considered scientists. They said the women were all well qualified with considerable expertise in their fields. They provided biographies for all four women, which showed that Dr Dhushyanthan and Dr Hili had PhDs in traditional scientific disciplines while Ms Curtis and Ms Vilinac had undertaken study in Homeopathy and Medical Herbalism respectively. NYR said those two women had qualified in their fields before degrees were possible, and now those courses were available as BSc degrees at UK universities. They said that as well as their academic study, the women were published authors with extensive knowledge and expertise in their fields, which had led to them being requested by international agencies to participate in activities that were unquestionably science based, and said that meant both could be correctly described as scientists.
Now it gets interesting. Indeed, two of the members of staff do indeed appear to have PhDs in science. Hili has a PhD from the University of Westminster (renowned for teaching pseudoscientific nonsense) entitled Essential oils : antimicrobial activity and the effects on membrane lipid activity. (1998). Now, essential oils are mumbo jumbo, but it is quite possible to have done a legitimate scientific study of such substances, and so we must accept that Dr Hili has indeed got a genuine scientific past. We are told that Dr Dhushyanthan has a “PhD in Natural Preservatives in toiletries and a BSc Hons in Biochemistry and Microbiology, Dharmini has more than fulfilled her childhood dream of becoming a scientist.” Great. Now indeed, once again, I am sure a PhD in cosmetics production may well have some genuine value. But the point the ASA should have considered here is that this pair may indeed have had a scientific past, but is it misleading to describe them as ‘scientists’ in the scope of this advert? Is their use of the term misleading in the context of the advert? We shall come on to this more. But it is worth pointing out that the ASA are quite happy to conclude that calling yourself ‘Dr’ when you have a PhD or are using it because you are a trumped up chiropractor can mislead if it implies you have a medical qualification. Context is everything.
As for the second pair, the plea to consider Curtis and Vilinac as scientists is extraordinary. Curtis has no qualifications and has studied homeopathy and Vilinac is an expert in herbalism. Both subjects are straightforward quackery. But homeopathy is the most obvious. As I discussed last week, to be a practicing homeopath rules you out as being an expert in the subject as you hold beliefs that are straightforwardly false.
They claim that it is now possible to obtain a BSc in homeopathy in UK universities. Indeed, it was for a while. But there was such a furore about universities giving degrees in nonsense that they have now all shut down. Homeopaths and herbalists can no more claim to be scientists than astrologers and dowsers.
The ASA concluded after their investigation:
The ASA noted that there was no qualification process to become a scientist in the same way there was for professions like medicine or law, and that there was no universal definition of what constituted a scientist.
This is indeed true. But the issue at hand was not as to whether describing yourself as a scientist would be in breach of the law but rather would it mislead customers. The ASA would have no problem if an advertiser had claimed to be a qualified car mechanic, when indeed they had no such experience or training, in asking for such a person to justify such a claim. And just because there is no ‘universal definition’ as to what a scientist is does not mean that the term has no meaning. There is no universal definition of ‘chair’ but that does not mean that we can usefully call objects chairs and deny chairhood to objects such as a typewriter keyboard. In this case, the ASA should have been able to say that a homeopath is not a scientist as homeopathy is not a science.
The makers of Futurama felt quite able to make such a distinction:
The ASA went on,
We also understood that science was continually evolving, and that “green” and holistic approaches to science were becoming more common. We considered that because the ad was in a catalogue for natural remedies, readers were likely to be familiar with alternative or less traditional approaches to science, and therefore to the idea of a “green scientist”. We noted that the evidence showed that the four women in the ad were experts in their respective fields, and that they all had significant experience in “green” science. We therefore considered it was acceptable for the ad to refer to the women as scientists, and concluded the ad was not misleading.
So, it looks like the ASA fall straight into the Neal’s Yard Humpty Dumpty trap. They have bought the line that there is such as thing as ‘green and holistic’ science, that is in some unspoken way qualitatively different to mainstream science yet still deserves to be called science. However, what NYR call ‘less traditional approaches’ can only really be described as pseudoscience. Homeopathy is to science as air guitar is to music – as someone has quipped before. That the women were “experts in their fields” does not mean that the term scientist would mislead their customers.