Science and popular culture have long mixed in unique and productive ways. Cutting-edge science has inspired great novels, movies, music and art. But as science becomes a larger part of our cultural landscape, we are seeing a concomitant increase in the profoundly and paradoxically unscientific use of scientific language and images. The advocates of dubious products, philosophies and therapies frequently lean heavily on scientific-sounding terminology as a way of capitalizing on the excitement surrounding cutting-edge areas of science, including genetics, stem cells and nanotechnology.

Given that we live in an era when science has never had more of a public profile, this strategy makes tremendous sense — at least from a marketing perspective. But it is also exploitive and misleading and, in the long run, could be detrimental to both science and public trust. This is particularly so since the entities and individuals who use science to sell rarely turn the lens of scientific inquiry on the very product they are pitching.

One of the highest-profile examples of the phenomenon of simultaneously embracing (look at these cutting-edge and science-y-sounding products!) and rejecting (don’t hold us to your rigorous methodological standards!) science is the anti-aging and beauty industry. This is a massive global market that, by some estimates, will be worth over $100 billion by 2017.

Among its products are numerous anti-aging services that leverage the hype around genetics. SkinDNA — a “Wellbeing Genomics” company (whatever that is) — promises “the pursuit of youth through advanced technology” by the provision of (completely unproven) “personalized anti-aging skin treatment[s].” There is DNA shampoo that is “genetically superior” and “electrolytic” balanced. There are even companies that promise genetically targeted cosmetics that will allow for individualized skin products, a field that has the impressive-sounding label of “cosmetogenomics.”

All this is nothing more than pseudoscientific nonsense.

Not surprisingly, companies selling dubious anti-aging products also frequently exploit the profile of stem cell research, which is one of the most exciting fields of scientific inquiry, and is also one that continues to receive a large amount of coverage in the popular press. One Web site, Stem Cell Beauty Innovations, for example, encapsulates all the science-language incongruities that have become endemic in today’s media landscape. The Web site refers to the use of “pluripotent stem cells” and “transcription factors” that “revitalize” the skin and allow for “increased levels of collagen, glycoproteins, and elastic fibers in the skin’s extra cellular matrix” — all for the purpose of “de-aging” the skin.

But amidst all this science-love, the company also explicitly espouses a new-age-y philosophy that seeks to introduce unique “all-natural anti-aging products.” It is no wonder that, as the front page of the company’s Web site declares, “Simon Cowell is obsessed with Sheep Placenta Facials.”

The inconsistent and selective use of the language and images of science is most notoriously seen in the realm of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). On the one hand, this community seems to increasingly embrace the most cutting-edge of health products, but, on the other, it continues to largely reject what science says about most complementary and alternative health treatments: that they don’t work.

Worse, it is not uncommon for CAM practitioners to explicitly reject a scientific approach to health care, suggesting that the efficacy of their approaches cannot be tested by the scientific method or that science is somehow interfering with a holistic approach to the healing process.

One of the best examples of this embrace/reject mentality is the increasing use of genetic testing by naturopaths and homeopaths. You can get, for example, “electronic homeopathy bio-energetic medicine,” a process that involves genetic testing in order to individualize the homeopathic treatment protocols. The scientific community has long rejected homeopathy and views it as little more than pseudoscientific quackery. There is not a shred of evidence that homeopathic remedies work beyond the placebo effect. Similarly, many naturopaths now offer genetic testing for everything from weight loss to “wellness plans” and, in doing so, reference studies in legitimate science journals to support the approach. Nonetheless, these same practitioners ignore research published by the same scientific community that created the adopted genetic tests that suggests most naturopathic treatments are of questionable value.

Let’s be clear: these companies and practitioners want the best of both worlds. They want the veneer of legitimacy that comes with the references to cutting-edge science, but they don’t want to be held to a scientific standard. And they don’t expect consumers to know what is meant by the skin’s “cellular matrix” or what “glycoproteins” are; they just want to create the appearance that their products and services are somehow linked to real science.

I am not, obviously, arguing that only those who fully embrace the scientific method and all its trappings and philosophical complexities can use scientific language and images. But it is profoundly disingenuous, misleading and potentially harmful to use science jargon — often in a selective and hypocritical manner — to sell products and philosophies that are anything but scientific. Sadly, the growth of this science-sells phenomenon seems unlikely to slow down anytime soon. With each new legitimate and well-publicized advance in some area of science will come new, and bogus, marketing strategies.

We can’t let these purveyors of nonsense have it both ways. There are steps we can take to combat the paradoxes of pop science: more independent and easily accessible sources of scientific information; an increased emphasis on scientific literacy within our public school systems; policing of misleading advertising; and, perhaps most important, fostering a skeptical attitude toward all scientific-sounding claims.

Good science welcomes and thrives under skeptical scrutiny. If we stick to that principle, pseudoscience and quackery will, one can hope, wither.

Photo: Shutterstock

Timothy Caulfield
Timothy Caulfield est titulaire de la Chaire de recherche du Canada en droit et en politique de la santĂ©, professeur Ă  la facultĂ© de droit et Ă  l’école de santĂ© publique, et directeur de recherche au Health Law Institute de l’UniversitĂ© de l’Alberta.

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