The dangers of scientifically educating the masses via advertising

On my way home from the store yesterday, I overheard a commercial from 350.org that really annoyed me. 350.org is an environmental organization dedicated to raising awareness of Anthropogenic Climate Change (ACC) and combating climate change deniers, so theoretically I should like them.

350.org logo

350.org logo (2)

The commercial, and indeed the entire campaign, is based around the number 350. 350 PPM  is considered to be a healthy target for CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, but currently we are around 385 PPM. (1) Looking through their website, they seem to have their science down surprisingly well for a non-scientific organization. Also, they cite all of their sources, and their sources are things like Science, Nature, and NASA. (2) Obviously their understanding isn’t very deep, they aren’t scientists after all, but what they do have seems to be accurate. So what’s my beef with them?

It’s this radio commercial. Unfortunately, I can’t find a copy of the ad online, but I’ll summarize the important part. They said (and I’m paraphrasing) that “350 is the most important number you should be aware of. 350 PPM CO2 is the point at which life on Earth can no longer survive. Join us today to help fight climate change.” The rest of the add was just intro and outro stuff, so it didn’t really do anything to setup or frame their argument.

So what did they do wrong? There are two things I take issue with. First is that they didn’t state what the current levels are, and didn’t do anything to put that 350 PPM number in perspective. Are we below it and have plenty of time to deal with it? Are we way above it and are totally screwed? There is an answer, of course, but the commercial didn’t explain it.

2000 Year Temperature Comparison

2000 Year Temperature Comparison (3)

Theoretically this ad is targeting people who don’t think ACC is real, but those people won’t have the forehand knowledge necessary to contextualize this number. After all, these people don’t think ACC is real, which pretty much guarantees that they don’t know the science behind it. My second issue is that they put too much emphasis on the 350 number in the ad. While it wasn’t their intention, they implied that if we are below 350 we are okay, and we aren’t okay if we are above it. In reality, there is no single cutoff point, but rather a gradient of gradually worsening consequences. In other words, they oversimplified the situation.

So the ad wasn’t done well; it wouldn’t be the first time there was a bad ad before. Why do I care about this one in specific? Well, admittedly, misrepresentations of science are a pet-peeve of mine, even when well intentioned. But I also think that it hurts our case against the ACC denialers. All it does is give them ammunition, i.e. “They made this one incorrect statement in their ad, therefore their entire position is wrong.” We see this tactic all the time with their attacks on evolution.

Another reason I think this lazy advertising is bad is because it further encourages non-critical thinking. Here is an advertisement that is essentially lazy with the facts, which gives impressionable people the idea that it’s OK to play fast and loose with the facts, even though (especially because?) it’s for a good cause. Everyone should always put forth the time to make sure their scientific arguments are solid and complete, and to always convey that information when sharing that information. It may not seem like a big deal at the time (e.g. “It’s just one commercial”), but these things have a cumulative effect. We must always be diligent about the facts, and we must always try our best to set a good example. If we can do this, then maybe, just maybe, the scientifically illiterate might notice.

(1) Hansen, J., et al. ” Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim?” The Open Atmospheric Science Journal. 15th October, 2008. Available: http://arxiv.org/abs/0804.1126
(2) “350 Science.” 350.org. Available: http://www.350.org/en/about/science
(3) “Global Warming.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_warming

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