Saturday, February 21, 2009

Hard Times at Red Donkey

Suppose there's an "energy drink" called Red Donkey of which sales are persistently low despite various marketing and advertising efforts.

Further suppose Red Donkey's VP of Marketing (Nat Chisbet) proposes the hypothesis that people reject Red Donkey because they believe it contains large amounts of caffeine. Chisbet is very passionate about this. Assume it does, in fact, contain large amounts of caffeine, but that the VP of Product Development, Pritchard Hawkins, does not accept Chisbet's hypothesis -- Hawkins believes the surplus of caffeine is either unimportant or possibly a net positive for the product's popularity.

To settle the question, the company conducts opinion polls, and the results are somewhat surprising to all: quite a few people aren't even aware that Red Donkey contains caffeine!

Intrigued, they crunch the numbers and find that among those who correctly believe Red Donkey is caffeinated, 53% like the product, and another 18% express no opinion about it. Only 29% of people who know Red Donkey contains caffeine also dislike the product.

Meanwhile, the polls show that among those who mistakenly believe Red Donkey is caffeine-free, 29% like the product, 30% don't like the product, and 40% express no opinion.

Do these poll results vindicate Chisbet's hypothesis, or do they vindicate Hawkins's doubts? Wouldn't any VP worth his salt have to concede that the polling results at least bear on the question?

Evidently not if Red Donkey is evolutionary science, caffeine is Charles Darwin, the polling is this recent effort by Gallup, and the VP of Marketing is Matt Nisbet:

Not surprisingly, Carl Safina's Feb. 10 essay at the NY Times calling for an end to Darwin worship generated a fair amount of criticism.

Safina's suggestion to frame information in terms of the nature and benefits of evolutionary science rather than the more traditional "great man of science" narrative is a sound one. In fact, it's the exact strategy that the National Academies used in last year's educational backgrounder on evolution.
One would think that Nisbet would have considered these poll results before declaring victory over the phony specter of "Darwin worship," just as one would think he would have cited some polling data to support the claim that last year's "educational backgrounder" from the NAS is producing broader acceptance of evolution.

But no, the "science" of Framing Science seems to amount to a mix of announcements of Matt Nisbet's forthcoming talks, self-citations by Matt Nisbet, and, of course, demands by Matt Nisbet that others shut up and leave the communicating to him.

Those poll results bearing on the relationship between acceptance of evolution and association of Darwin with evolution are reproduced below; the fuller Gallup survey has plenty more, including several results holding considerably more promise in understanding why evolution is unpopular, and thus more promise in how its acceptance might be broadened with well-crafted communications and outreach.

Update: more on Safina's piece in the NY Times and "Darwin worship" can be found at Quintessence of Dust, Pharyngula, The Scientific Activist, and John Hawks.

Red Donkey image courtesy The Elms Farm.


The Science Pundit said...

I can't say that I've ever really trusted that Nat Chisbet.

Dale said...

Science Pundit, me neither. It's hard to imagine a clearer case of the Peter Principle.