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Science Goes Madison Avenue

Given the daily onslaught of advice--sagacious and otherwise--on seemingly every topic delivered by anyone within earshot of a soapbox, it's pleasant to consider what societies might be like if lateral thinkers, such as scientists, led the way. What if even just a few prominent voices, clearly heard above the ruckus of opinion-giving and decision-making, were more idealistic than pragmatic, pensive rather than reactive, and beholden to no special interests but life and peace? Okay, that isn't

By | May 5, 2003

Given the daily onslaught of advice--sagacious and otherwise--on seemingly every topic delivered by anyone within earshot of a soapbox, it's pleasant to consider what societies might be like if lateral thinkers, such as scientists, led the way. What if even just a few prominent voices, clearly heard above the ruckus of opinion-giving and decision-making, were more idealistic than pragmatic, pensive rather than reactive, and beholden to no special interests but life and peace? Okay, that isn't entirely what scientists are about, nor is it how the world works, but it's pleasant to consider.

The essential goal is to garb scientists in the raiment of the larger society's values and preoccupations, so the message deliverer has a familiar guise. Politicians, entertainers, and advertisers do this all the time. It's called packaging. The well-packaged scientist would look the role while delivering a revolutionary message so insidious that most folks couldn't distinguish it from the usual cant. In other words, the feel-good guff about caring and sharing that normally tarts up naked self-interest would be, in the scientist's case, not only the packaging but also the content. The image would become the product; now that's marketing.

What would the ideal scientist look like? First off, he would be male, a prerequisite that can be blamed on the societal stereotype. Don't forget, the way this packaging exercise works is by concentrating on what interests the public. Accordingly, the most important image issue after gender is hair. A full head of graying or white hair is acceptable, although our man must offset the possibility of looking like an aging rake by displaying some avuncular characteristic, such as bottle-bottomed bifocals or a casually draped Nobel Prize medal. A bald or shaved head, which connotes villainy in cinematic science, should be discouraged. The optimum: he would possess the endearing eccentricity of pattern baldness within an overgrown, electrified fringe.

Next comes clothing, a.k.a. the envelope. The chalk smudge, a species marker, should be applied to a tweed suit that is one size too small or large. Other markers are permissible, if carefully chosen. For example, atomic-pattern socks or a Charles Darwin watch face are fine, but a green fluorescent incisor is overkill. Our man always should wear the same suit, and the night before each TV appearance, he should sleep in it.

Another essential part of the package is the voice. The objective is a blend of the news announ-cer's dispassionate tones with soap-operatic passion, to attain a modulated excitability that proclaims both scientific objectivity and erotically charged enthusiasm. For a benchmark, consider Carl Sagan, David Attenborough, or a teenaged boy analyzing the talents of Britney Spears, sans the saliva.

The message itself must be easily consumed or phagocytosed, which requires a reductive process that terminates in a slogan. The slogan is the scientist's phenotype, characteristic of the species. It should be deep but catchy, like, "life and peace." Speaking for all scientists, our man can blow a raspberry into the microphone, and the sound engineer can transform it into Esperanto for "life and peace." He can advocate a huge funding increase in bioweaponry research, and everyone will see it as a proposal made in the interests of life and peace. (One would prefer an alternate outcome, but such are the risks of science.) Having become a commodity endowed with both economic brawn and universality, he now is identified with an array of material goods that have nothing whatsoever to do with him. In marketing, this is called "pluripotency." Accordingly, he should never reject a merchandising offer, be it computer software, energy drinks, or bobble dolls.

The quest for pluripotency gets a boost if the scientist is an accomplished researcher who has done something that the public can appreciate without actual comprehension. The prototype here is relativity, which ended up standing for relativism, pluralism, eclecticism, and the other thing that nobody really understands, postmodernism. In any case, when the researcher's name precedes a newly founded Life and Peace University of Biomedical Research, preferably located at a ski resort in a tax haven, the packaging effort can be considered successful.

Upon our icon's demise, if an overawed pathologist removes his brain, that's gravy. In the end, he will have opened doors for all tonsorially aware geniuses in rumpled suits with a few notions about how things work, which pretty much sums up every biologist. If you don't believe it, just ask the person in the street.

Steve Bunk (sbunk@the-scientist.com) is a freelance writer in San Francisco


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