Marketing Science

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 15, 2010 in Ethics,Guest Post

The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moraltheory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)


This is my birthday. In that context, I have asked myself, of all of the various ideas I have presented in my life, what is the one idea that I think is the most important – that would be the most beneficial – that would go furthest in making the world a better place than it would have otherwise been.

The answer: That money should be collected to pay for a professional advertising campaign to promote the virtues of science and reason. By this I mean hiring a professional advertising agency to conduct focus groups and surveys to design a campaign that will cause people to more strongly value science and reason – to want it to be taught in schools, to praise those who are its best practitioners, and to condemn those who abandon its principles.

In presenting this idea over the years, I have seen something of an incoherence in the beliefs of those who believe that science and reason are worthwhile social values. While they hold that these values exist, they seem prone to condemn – or at least shun – the practice of applying science and reason to the practice of promoting science and reason.

Because that is what professional marketers do. They apply the principles of science and reason to the project of designing a campaign that is most likely to have the desired effect.

They will, of course, start with some brainstorming to come up with their original ideas. But they do not trust themselves to be right. Their next step is to design experiments that will test those ideas, and provide additional data that they can then use to refine those ideas.

To collect evidence, they create surveys and summon people into focus groups. They will generate hypothesi, use those hypothesi to predict survey and focus group responses, collect their data, and then revise their hypothesi accordingly.

Ironically, the most successful anti-science campaigns come from religious organizations. They owe their success, to a large degree, to their successful advertising. And much of that advertising is under the direction of professional marketing companies. They know the power of science and reason to come up with campaigns that are effective, and they use them. While, at the same time, those who claim that science and reason are good social values do nothing in this area.

To be honest, there are legitimate reasons to be concerned about what comes out of a professional marketing company.

While it is the case that these companies use the scientific method to determine what campaign is most likely to work, often it is the case that the campaign that is most likely to work deviates significantly from the scientific method.

In other words, if the survey says that a particular fallacy or distortion will have the desired effect, many marketers seem to have no moral qualms against using that fallacy or distortion. And in using it, they endorse its use – they endorse a cultural value that favors using fallacies and distortions when it has the desired effect. That, of course, is directly the opposite of what a campaign to promote science and reason would want to be involved in.

For example, If an oil company wants to know how to confuse the public debate so that they can politically stall any effort to prevent global warming in the future, they need only to hire a marketing firm. The firms that come up with the best fallacies and distortions – that come up with the most effective placement of smoke and mirrors – will benefit from the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars that those people profiting from greenhouse gas emissions have to spend.

That’s money that we gave these companies to spend, by the way. Every dollar we give to an organization that uses it to promote fallacies and distortions with respect to global warming is a one dollar non-tax-deductible contribution to a campaign for this generation of company executives and stock holders to profit at the expense of the next generation.

Anyway, the question is, why turn to organizations that seem to have no qualms against using fallacies and distortions when they have the desired effect as a way to promote science and reason as cultural values?

This aversion to using such methods probably ties in with the sense that there is only one legitimate way to learn science – and that is through the scientific method. The value of science and reason says that the only legitimate way to persuade somebody of the truth of a proposition is to present them with the evidence and the reasoning that links evidence to the conclusion in order to demonstrate the truth of the conclusion.

So, it hardly makes sense to advocate abandoning the values of science and reason to enter into a marketing campaign using fallacies and distortions to promote science and reason.

However, that does not argue against having and contributing to such a campaign. It only states that the campaign will face some moral constraints that professional marketers often do not put on themselves. The campaign that promotes science and reason has to be a campaign that respects the values of science and reason.

Rest assured, while those who value science and reason shun marketing, those who object to science and reason will continue to market their ideas. And we are all made worse off because of this battle in which only one side – the wrong side – comes armed with the most powerful weapons that the reason and the scientific method make available: marketing weapons.

So, what would a campaign that markets science and reason while respecting the values of science and reason look like?

Don’t ask me.

As a professional marketing agency.

Go to them and say, “Your job, if you want our money, is to design a campaign that will at the same time have the greatest effect in promoting science and reason while, at the same time, respecting science and reason. You are the professionals. Show me what you can come up with.”

There is nothing in the fact that the techniques used by professional marketers and the uses to which they are put that argues that there are not legitimate options for using those tools as well. The fact that knives have been used to kill innocent people does not argue against using a knife to perform life-saving surgery.

In fact, we are within the bounds of reasoning to say that the person who refuses to use a scalpel to save a life on account of the fact that scalpels have sometimes been used as murder weapons to be quite unscientific and unreasonable.

Another objection that I expect to hear to this type of proposal is that science and reason should be able to sell themselves without our help.

I assure you, a lot of businesses that no longer exist were started by people who believed the same thing – that their products would sell themselves.

The real world does not work that way. An advocate of science and reason should be the last person caught making plans for an idealized world rather than the world we are actually living in. Let us not talk about what should work in a perfect world, but let us talk instead about what works in the world we are living in.

Atheism itself did not become popular until it was advertised. Of course, the advertisements came in the form of advertising a product for profit. In this case, it was the advertizing of books such as The End of Faith and The God Delusion. Christopher Hitchens’ fame can certainly be attributed to the fact that he never shies away from an opportunity to advertise himself.

Then the billboards went up. And they worked. They managed to incorporate one of the major advertising principles of the modern era. News stories count as free advertising.

However, these projects advertise atheism. They do not advertise science and reason. Though there are some people who confuse the two and suggest they are the same thing. They are not.

Of the two, I would argue that advertising science and reason has more value than advertising atheism. That is the project that I would endorse. In fact, of all of the projects I have suggested, I count that as the most worthwhile.

- Alonzo Fyfe

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Reginald Selkirk July 15, 2010 at 5:58 am


Eneasz July 15, 2010 at 8:09 am

Is there a PayPal account we can donate to, in support of this? I quit smoking a couple months back and I’d be more than happy to contribute a portion of my savings for this cause.


Jeff H July 15, 2010 at 11:50 am

Happy birthday, Alonzo!

Overall, I do agree that this is a worthwhile thing. However, one question I have is how one can use reason to convince people who don’t use reason to use it. It seems as though if you present someone with logical arguments, yet they don’t care about logic or arguments, that it won’t be very successful. I admit that probably there are few people who really, truly reject reason as a whole – but there are plenty who have a competition in their own heads between faith and reason.

Another question I have is simply in terms of effectiveness: Is it more effective to run an ad campaign about science, or to instead spend that money on improving science education so that the next generation has a better understanding of it? I suppose perhaps that’s something else for the marketing agency to figure out.

One last question: Hypothesi? Really? Really? Try hypotheses.


Alonzo Fyfe July 15, 2010 at 1:36 pm

(1) Well, remember, according to desirism, desires are not changed through reason. Desires are changed through praise, condemnation, and other methods that good marketing companies know how to employ effictively. That is the point of using them.

(2) An advertisement campaign that promotes science and reason as social values should have a significant impact on improving science education. The quality of science education today suffers at least in part by those who do not seem to care about its quality – and those who are actually trying to reduce its quality.


exapologist July 15, 2010 at 2:15 pm

Happy Birthday, Luke!


lukeprog July 15, 2010 at 2:23 pm


Alonzo wrote this post. It’s Alonzo’s birthday. :)


exapologist July 15, 2010 at 3:55 pm

Whoops! A belated “Happy Birthday!” to Alonzo, then! :-)


Erika July 16, 2010 at 8:12 am

I think Thaler and Sunstein’s book Nudge could provide a lot of insight into a project like this. That book talks about how one can use insights into human biases to, in an ethical manner, nudge people to make certain decisions.


Tshepang Lekhonkhobe July 16, 2010 at 9:44 am

Alonzo, now that’s a nice idea. You make me wish I was rich.

Anyways, it’s hard to chew “desires can’t be changed through reason”. You’ve talked about this a lot before, but I don’t remember you justifying it. Do you have a link, or can you answer here?


Alonzo Fyfe July 16, 2010 at 10:31 am

Tshepang Lekhonkhobe

Anyways, it’s hard to chew “desires can’t be changed through reason”. You’ve talked about this a lot before, but I don’t remember you justifying it. Do you have a link, or can you answer here?

The more technical description is that there is no logical inference from “(change in) belief” -> “(change in) desires-as-ends”.


Tshepang Lekhonkhobe July 16, 2010 at 1:14 pm

That’s rather too technical. Am not well-versed with philosophy/logic, so maybe an expansion would do.


Jeff H July 16, 2010 at 3:13 pm


I think a good example might be this: Suppose the world completely runs out of food. I will then be of the belief that there is no food in the world. That would, however, have no impact on my desire for food because I’m hungry.


AlonzoFyfe July 17, 2010 at 3:42 am


Beliefs are motivationally neutral. They are simply collections of data about the world without any motivational force behind them.

I believe there is some choclate cake left in the refrigerator. After all, Thursday was my birthday and I cannot eat cake THAT fast. This is true, but it does not move me to do anything.

I want to eat some chocolate cake. This is a desire. It is the desire that motivates one to act. If I had a different desire (e.g., I can’t stand to even look at a chocolate cake), then I would respond differently to the belief that there is a cake in the refrigerator.

Now, there is no logical interence from any set of non-motivational “belief” propositions to a motivational “desire” propositions. Whereas the desire contains an element not found in any belief (motivational force), an inference or implication from beliefs to desires is not logically possible.


Tshepang Lekhonkhobe July 17, 2010 at 2:07 pm

What I wanted you to justify is the claim that using reason has no effect in modifying any desire. You say we act on the stronger of our desires, given our believes, and I suppose reasoning is an attempt at modifying believe and/or thinking, which is what’s used as a basis for desire. Maybe I need more reading, but I’ve gone through so many of your blog posts and I still don’t get it. What am I missing here?


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