Blinding them with science

Taking advantage of your customers’ scientific illiteracy is no better than fraud.

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Be honest with your customers. It’s arguably the oldest and most fundamental ethical rule for business. It’s also the path to sustained profits: customers will come back if they feel they’ve been treated well. But ethics and profits can come apart when the product being sold is so complex that consumers have trouble knowing they’ve been duped. A flurry of recent news stories highlight this fact. All involve companies trading on customers’ lack of scientific sophistication.

In a recent piece in The Scientist, for example, Zubin Master and David Resnik discuss the epidemic of fraudulent “stem cell therapy” clinics popping up in the less-well-regulated parts of the world. As they point out, there’s plenty of room for optimism about the eventual therapeutic applications of stem cells, but clinics offering to cure Parkinson’s or to fix broken spinal cords are not just misleading but seriously dangerous.

Then came a story out of Zimbabwe about how the false belief in the cancer-curing properties of rhino horns has led rhino poaching to a record high.

Finally, there were reports of Mexican police using what are essentially fancy plastic dowsing rods to ferret out bombs and drugs. These devices, priced at thousands of dollars each, have also seen military use in Afghanistan and Iraq, even though they’ve been shown, under lab conditions, to be useless.

But the problem isn’t just with such outright frauds. Honest, well-intentioned businesses need to take note, too. This is especially relevant to the health, beauty and food industries—industries in which consumers notoriously have trouble evaluating products. Naturally, in order to be successful, a business has to have faith in its product. You have to believe your product works and is going to satisfy a need, or at least a desire. But zeal isn’t a licence to kill. Zeal has to be rooted in something more than the desire to succeed. It has to be rooted in the sincere belief that success is going to come through meeting the customer’s needs. And while customers are experts on their own needs, you need to be the expert on what your product can and cannot do. And then you need to be honest about it, both with yourself and with your customers.