10.06.2022 change 10.06.2022

Marketing 'sciencewashing' may undermine confidence in science. How to stigmatise it?

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Some manufacturers of cosmetics, dietary supplements, electronic equipment boast that the effectiveness of their products is scientifically confirmed. Studies that help advertise products often have nothing to do with the real scientific method. In the long run, such dishonest marketing can undermine trust not so much in companies but in science. Maybe it is worth considering how to stigmatise him?

Just like we have greenwashing - baseless advertising of products as ecological, natural, recyclable, similarly we could talk about sciencewashing - a marketing strategy based on claiming that the effectiveness of the advertised product is supported by scientific research, although that statement is far from the truth .


I sometimes read labels of cosmetics and laugh (although I should rather get angry). 'After applying this conditioner, 98 percent of users believe that their hair is more silky*', and small print: '*research performed on a group of 30 women' (this example has been made up, I have neither money nor time for going to court with large companies).

Since the company is not ashamed to write on the packaging about such a small and not very representative sample, what is it ashamed of? Maybe the fact that people conducting research or study participants were employees of the company that makes the conditioner? Or that they received gifts for positive answers? How do you miraculously get 98 percent of 30 respondents? Was it a double-blind study, or at least a control group was selected?

It is difficult to say, because there is no way to find records from these studies... There is no DOI address on the packaging (because the publication probably has never been peer reviewed or even made public so that you can refer to it). One can only guess that such studies are far from representative surveys or verified biochemical research on changes in the hair structure after using a given conditioner...

But a client standing by the shelf in the store and willing to only spend a moment shopping has the impression: this product has been subject to scientific research; it is scientifically confirmed that it makes your hair silky.

Due to such marketing strategies, consumers are ready to spend a lot of money on products whose effectiveness is doubtful: it is enough that the name of some protein (a 'natural' substance, of course) appears on the packaging of an anti-wrinkle cream, or a sterile laboratory flashes in the TV ad. And actors wearing lab coat swear that the 'treatment removes toxins from the body'.

Such sciencewashing - giving the impression of a product, the effectiveness of which is scientifically proven - is sometimes used by manufacturers of cosmetics, cleaning products, dietary supplements and electronic equipment. And it has actually become so common that it is no longer visible. That should not be the case.

At first, such marketing strategies do not seem harmful: what's the worst that can happen, someone will just buy a conditioner or audio cable that is worth the money.

But in the long run, I believe that hundreds of such marketing half-truths we encounter every day can undermine confidence in science.

Since such weak studies conducted only to support companies' claims are called science - customers may think - actually every claim could be 'proven' this way. That is probably how the effectiveness of new vaccines has been verified, or the safety of genetically modified plants, a disappointed consumer could think.


Meanwhile, there is no doubt that companies can honestly use science and earn money. For example, when it comes to drugs or vaccines, this is regulated by law: every marketed drug must go though the authorisation system, including clinical trials where there is no room for sciencewashing, and you need real scientific evidence for the safety and effectiveness of the tested substance.

As for medicines and vaccines, there is no doubt: the scientific method was used in their testing. They went through several stages of very strict clinical trials. And there are known procedures if these trials are falsifiable (proven that something is wrong with them). In turn, dietary supplements and cosmetics are not subject to such meticulous testing.

Another group of products that have a full right to use science in marketing are those that have their sources in scientific projects. And the mechanisms of operation of the products, their effectiveness and safety, have been studied and confirmed in a series of reviewed studies.

Finally, there are products - especially those that arouse emotions in society - such as genetically modified plants, electronic devices, addictive products or plant protection products that are tested by independent research teams after they hit the market. So it can happen that scientific evidence - confirming or refuting the effectiveness or safety of a given product - appears over time, when the product is already used by consumers.

But what difference does it make if a customer standing by the shelf sometimes cannot tell whether a given product has been tested in almost every possible way in a reliable scientific study - or is only advertised with 'research' that in fact is nothing more than internal focus tests conducted on a tiny group of consumers.

Something here seriously fails in communication when we do not know what is based on science and what is not. It is hardly surprising that customers may feel lost. And science loses twice: first when marketers abuse it to sell more products, second when customers offended by dishonest messages lose trust in the scientific method itself.


That is why, in my opinion, it is time to start a discussion about a system for stigmatising such sciencewashing (perhaps this phenomenon has a more professional name; please let me know if it does).

The easiest way would be to boycott products or companies that use sciencewashing. But how can a customer be sure which company actually relies on science, and which one only pretends to do that?

It is definitely worth developing a more coherent and orderly method of communicating that a given product has reliable research behind it.

One way to do this is the 'hard' method: introducing changes in legislation and, for example, a ban on using certain wording in marketing or products - for example 'scientific research', 'scientifically proven' - if the studies in question have not met specific requirements. Impossible or stupid? But it was similar with food products: it is necessary to meet certain standards to sell the product as butter or cheese, and not only as a margarine or a cheese-like product...

Instead of a stick, you can also use a carrot: a certification system, in which independent institutions would confirm the reliability of research on a given product... And, for example, award a logo to confirm that the product effectiveness has been confirmed in reviewed scientific research (assuming, of course, that the logo can be withdrawn when the research is refuted - because hypothesis falsifiability is a basic element of science.

Or maybe there should be reliable apps or websites collecting information about reviewed research on a given product? For now, knowledge is so dispersed that it is difficult to find information quickly.

Corporate culture is another element that should change. The authors of dishonest marketing tricks should not get bonuses and CEOs' praise for cheating customers out of their money, instead they should be punished for the harm they are causing to society in the long run.

Let's think for a moment: wouldn't it be worthwhile having a tool that facilitates consumer choices based on scientific evidence? This way we could avoid having to read incomprehensible descriptions on packaging and wonder if we give our money to companies that respect science or maybe to charlatans.


Finally, it may be worth reminding what the process of reaching conclusions with the peer-review process looks like. For scientists it is obvious, but laypersons hear about it too rarely.

Observations are made, questions are asked, there is a search for answers and a hypothesis is put forward. Then it is verified in practice, by conducting an experiment.

Data from the experiment are collected and conclusions are drawn from them - researchers check whether they have confirmed or perhaps refuted the initial hypothesis. If it is the latter, another conclusion is formulated, in accordance with the results of the experiment.

The research description and conclusions are subject to discussion with experts - they are sent to a prestigious scientific journal/publishing house, where the study undergoes a scientific review process. Several experts in a given field, who have spent many years studying a given area of knowledge (their names are withheld from the authors to prevent pressure or temptation), check the paper, ask the authors for details, corrections , comment on research and decide whether to approve the paper for publication. Usually, authors must reveal how their research was financed and whether there is a conflict of interest. The paper is published. Other scientists can reproduce the results of the experiment themselves and everyone can verify whether a given publication is free of errors or false conclusions.

It is always possible to withdraw/improve the paper. For example, if another team presents completely different results of the same research, identifies errors in previous analyses, notices important elements omitted in the publication or proves the authors' dishonesty in presenting the results (or the authors themselves admit to be wrong), the journal can withdraw the publication or add a commentary that will warn future readers. In the scientific method, an error is something you apologize for and correct, not something you stick to until the end of the world.

Studies that companies use to support their products are lacking in several important points to meet the conditions of scientific research. After all, research that companies boast in ads and on product packaging can be conducted to support a specific claim or in conditions of conflict of interest. It is not subject to expert discussion or published in reviewed scientific journals, and therefore it is impossible to repeat it and show that it is false.

As long as we do not have tools to quickly assess the credibility of the 'science' used in marketing, it is best to keep this process of reaching reliable knowledge in mind and ask yourself whether there actually was a chance for a given product to undergo this whole process.

And just so it's clear: this entry is only my loose thoughts, a starting point for discussion. It has not been subject to scientific review. I am only at the first point: I am making an observation, asking questions and looking for answers (just like other bloggers, journalists, public opinion leaders). Do not forget which points related to the verification of hypotheses distinguish our thoughts from the thoughts of scientists confirmed in the peer-review process.

PAP - Science in Poland, Ludwika Tomala


tr. RL

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