The fourth NFC podcast where we break down how scientists can better market their discoveries and create a new portmanteau: smile-chuckle, or smuckle.
From economics + linguistics, we’ve splashed into creating a science police to discussing the branding of the potential end of our modern world. I can say with some confidence, I’ve had a pretty fun time so far.
As far as the spread of false information, I won’t give you another mechanism, but I will highlight the underlying theme in both of them. And that, my friend, is the influence of emotion. Daniel Kahneman, Nobel award winning economist/psychologist, highlights this in his book: Thinking, Fast & Slow. Emotions not only strengthens preexisting biases by mixing our opinions with our ego and contextual feelings, but also, emotions shape our beliefs towards large-scale societal norms. However, specifically relevant with Biased Assimilation, Kahneman speaks on the topic referring to it as ‘Theory-induced Blindness’ (which may in fact be a better coined term!).
One way he describes to overcome this effect with people is to use ‘mysterious coinage’ when specifically dealing in the realm of science. Instead of calling it ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’, one should use a much more obscure, agnostic word, like ‘system effect 1’ and ‘system effect 2’. Now, it’s not practical for all science topics because people don’t want to count to infinity with ‘system’ and ‘effect’ as prefixes, but there is some logic twisted in there. And it’s simple, it begs people to ask questions and inquire further about the topic rather than making surface level assumptions.
Now, I don’t know how marketable those terms can be, but maybe a balance between a ‘sexy’ advertisable phrase and a rigid ‘emotionless’ term may be the happy medium that science publicity departments are looking for.
‘Global warming,’ is definitely a misnomer (or at least it’s an easy target for a straw man). Your reaction is exactly why lots of scientists have been advocating calling the phenomenon ‘climate change’ instead of ‘global warming’- although it looks like ‘global warming’ is more associated with ‘with greater public understanding, emotional engagement, and support for personal and national action’. So maybe if it’s exposure that scientists want, ‘global warming’ is the better term. Is any publicity, good publicity?
You bring up a good point though, who is responsible for ‘marketing’ science? Is a new vaccine ‘revolutionary’, or is it just ‘effective in certain cases’? On one hand, the whole issue is a bit ridiculous. New scientific results are not Honey Nut Cheerios. They don’t need a catchy jingle. On the other, there is so much widely available information now that it’s vital that we can weed out what’s true from what’s not.
I think the burden should not be on scientists’ shoulders – not in any typical research scenario anyways. Universities have official PR departments that need to be responsible here. You mention that there are hired ‘word consultants’ – maybe science-specific publicists should be more popular? If every actor can have a dedicated publicist, it seems that Universities should hire more. Or, what about, the idea that there should be publicly funded science ‘police’ that verify various claims in major publications? Sure, even typing out the term ‘science police’ feels contradictory, but if you can sue someone for defaming your own reputation, why can’t you sue them for defaming science?
One interesting aspect to analyze here is the way in which false information can spread. Cass Sunstein, a Harvard Law professor, gave a famous lecture in the 80s presenting his theory about the mechanisms which are at play. He mentions two major ones:
1. Biased Assimilation
“If [a] statement is in agreement with the individual’s bias, the individual finds validation and holds the belief even more strongly. If the statement disagrees with what he or she already believes to be true, … the person will not change opinions, but rather will still find validation in his or her own belief, rejecting the statement as questionable for one rationalization or another.”
2. Informational Cascades
“..the process by which awareness of the aggregate opinions and beliefs of others can largely control an individual’s taste and belief formation. Through this process, he explained, “early adopters” can have an undue influence over the public’s general acceptance or rejection of a statement of fact.”
Can you think of any other ones?
As much as I’d love to ride in the limelight, the real credit should go to my professor for coining Econolinguistics. So when you use it to get your high paying job offers or your PhD scholarships from Hahvahd and Stanford, cite him not me. I’m just a humble, lonesome messenger in this game of creative knowledge. Now on to the big ticket items..
Ecolinguistics — the interplay of ecology and language. Interestingly specific. It reminds me of the time when someone first described to me what ‘global warming’ was. My initial reaction from the connotations of the individual words, as I’m sure with many other people, was ‘that sounds awesome!’. Especially as a resident of a country nicknamed The Great White North, who wouldn’t love the idea of longer springs, warmer summers, and a friendlier winter. But of course global warming describes a much harsher portrait of our little globe’s future: the destruction of our wonderfully cozy atmosphere, more severe weather disasters, the destruction of many ecological systems due to melting polar ice caps, and a bunch of other consequences that’ll put a frown on even the happiest of clowns. And to make matters worse, this specific problem in ecology and linguistics goes further than just the choice of words to coin the issue. This study explores the linguistic analysis of words describing the degree of certainty when referring to global warming in mainstream news. As you’d expect, in the news coverage of global warming, the fact of global warming was often alluded to as merely an opinion amongst a choice of many others, and this consequently swayed public opinion & discourse on the topic. After crunching all this info in my noggin, I’ve been led to two conclusions:
1) The scientific community almost definitely needs to allocate funds to quality advertising copywriters when coining new global disasters.
2) There needs to be a better way to control the language when describing what is a speculative theory in science and what is considered scientific fact. Although, it does seem next to impossible without breaching some element of our right to free speech in this beautiful white north nation of ours. Any ideas?
In the marketing crowd, an Econolinguistic Word Value index would definitely be the talk at the water cooler (is that still a valid workplace small talk area?). In the spirit of your idea of incorporating the value of non-native words, such as Häagen-Dazs, I believe localizing the index to regions of the world would account for this factor in word valuation. ‘Toque’ in Canada is worth a lot more than ‘toque’ in the US. In terms of coming up with a distinction between a descriptive product name or a catchy name, I don’t think it would directly fit in this theorized index. However, a corollary that would describe the perceived likeability of certain phonemes may work.
This open index might not yet exist, but I did get to some googling to find out if there may exist some form of a word valuation method that is being used by an organization. Perhaps people might actually pay to hire ‘name consultants’ to assist in the naming of a company or a product… And to my surprise, these companies do indeed exist! Of course, I had to send them an email inquiring about their services. So while I wait for your post next week, I am also anticipating a sliver of a look into the linguistic analysis and cost of how this stuff goes down in the real world.
P.S. Ran out of space to talk about your points/studies on language affecting purchasing decisions. Will hit on that on my next post!
Cheers ‘n stuff, yo.
Econolinguistics. Interesting. The word sure sounds impressive: I can imagine it might get you some extra brownie points with recruiters if you had it on your resume. Just imagine: an interviewer asks “So, econolinguistics, tell me a bit about what that means?”
“Well, econolinguistics deals with how language and various economic factors interact. “ you reply. “In my research, I looked at how different words and phrases can improve the appeal of a resume.”
“The word ‘Econolinguistics’ scored highly, I take it?”
BOOM. Mind: blown. Job: secured.
So what do I make of your newly crafted field? Well, first of all, there apparently already exists the field of ‘ecolinguistics’ which (based on my brief Wikipedia scan) mainly focuses on the way language affects ecological factors, though also indirectly deals with economic repercussions. The seminal paper in the field discussed how English speakers are biased by their language to associate ‘Economic growth’ with other positively inclined words such as ‘grow’, ‘large’ and ‘tall’.
That said, language and economy still looks to be a largely unexplored overlap. I can think of two major ideas that may be interesting to discuss.
First, marketing. This is inline with your point about the ‘value’ of words. How do we get into (and stay in) our conscious and subconscious mind through language? Do some words naturally ‘stick’ better and should therefore be valued more? What are the effects of the following:
1) ‘Foreign’ sounding names such as Häagen-Dazs and IÖGO.
2) Famous name changes and re-branding efforts such as Datsun to Nissan, RIM to Blackberry.
3) ‘Catchy’ names such as ‘Bing’ vs. descriptive names such as ‘Microsoft Live Search’.
Second, the way our grammar affects our economic choices. Can the language we speak really have a measurable influence on the way we earn and spend our economic power? I think, intuitively, there must be some deep links. Language is a reflection of the society we live in. Despite a few ‘regulatory agencies’, most languages around the world evolve quite fluidly and could in theory reflect the fiscal tendencies of a region.
One interesting study I stumbled across is one by Keith Chen, a professor of economics at Yale. It concludes that people who speak languages which have ‘strong’ future tenses (i.e. the future person is distinct from the present in colloquial speech) save less money than those who speak languages with ‘weak’ future tenses (as an example of strong vs. weak future tense, in English we say ‘I will meet you at 6pm’ whereas in German and Cantonese one says ‘I meet you at 6pm’). As with any ‘sociology’ result, caveat emptor goes without saying, but the result seems intuitively appealing.
This corroborates a result I saw in a Google Author talk by Kelly Mcgonigal, a professor at Stanford who recently published a book called ‘The Willpower Instinct’. One of her main recommendations for planning for the future is to ‘write your future self a letter’. In one of the studies she mentions, people who have been shown a digitally aged picture of themselves are willing to invest more into a savings account for their retirement. Other studies have shown that when we talk about our ‘future selves’ the same areas of the brain are activated as when we talk about ‘John Travolta’ or ‘Natalie Portman’. So if we speak in the present tense, can we empathize with our future selves and alter our economic choices? It certainly seems plausible.
Post: finished. Rebuttal: anticipated.
Econolinguistics. It isn’t even a branch of academia. Not even a word in the dictionary. But that’s what we do here at Never From Concentrate. We make shit up, poke at it and see what happens.
So where did this come from you may ask Valentin? I took a linguistics course called English Words through Time & Space in my last semester in university and ended up getting into a discussion with my professor on quantifying the value of a word or morpheme based on an analysis of the URL market. My professor quickly and wisely pointed out that the context is everything. For example, the word face in a URL has a different value than face in a trademark or in the copy of a print advertisement. But, in spite of this, would there be a way to quantify these words and come up with an index of the the relative value of each word? The trademark and URL market are the only two avenues I can think of that has a direct word to value association. I mean, you could analyze copy in advertisement and their relative success, but that would be much too difficult to disassociate all the confound variables that come attached with it.
Now, why would someone spend time to actually collect the data and conduct an analysis you may ask? The honest answer is mostly, just cause I kinda want to know. The business answer would be for marketers to use the index to create more effective copy in their advertisement.
But, before I continue to blab on and in hopes of broadening the discussion and blossoming field of econolinguistics, what are your surface level thoughts on the topic? Are there any tangents of the field you find interesting inherently from the conjunction of economics + linguistics?