A request for proposals to please illustrate a day in the life of Big Science
I don’t really understand what people expect Big Something to look like. I mean, in practice, in real life. Or, as the internet calls it, IRL.
Let’s look at an example that’s a little more subtle: Big Advertising. I seriously laugh out loud just typing that. Yet people often seem to act like it exists. I mean no judgement by that. The only reason why I beg to differ is, I work in the industry.
Which means I happen to know first-hand, that we’re a bunch of nerds. We’re all mostly just weirdos whose parents predicted they’ll never be able to use their respective skills and interests to earn a decent living.
After having resigned to the fact that, unless we change our perspective, they’re going to be right, we abandoned our fulltime philosophical and ethical pursuits, our fame through artistic expression pipe dreams or our respective college canvases and ghost chases. And realised advertising was a way to use our talents to produce work that a certain kind of people can relate to, in exchange for currency. I.e., the proverbial Buy Coke poster.
A lot of fucking work goes into that poster. But it’s no big conspiracy to promote anything in particular to the masses, though. We’re just a bunch of oddballs, earning a living doing what we’re good at. It’s creative, it’s fun, I absolutely love my job, personally. However, I guarantee you I am not cool enough to be involved in a worldwide conspiracy — nor have I ever seen or heard of anyone in this business who is.
The ‘masterminds’ behind Big Advertising are actually overcaffeinated individual teams of nerds doing market research, trying out words, trying out colours, trying to figure out a concept that would appeal to the people who would want to buy the thing.
It’s a glam industry, don’t get me wrong, seeing as it will have me, tattoos and perpetually changing hair and all, and I fit right into the picture.
But it’s not worldwide conspiracy level glam. Just we wear Vans in our 30s fuck off about it glam.
Yet people seem to expect a lot of collective power from a supposed entity that isn’t, IRL, in fact, at all a Collective. People often look at this industry (and a few others we’ll touch on soon) like it’s the Star Trek Borg: all one Collective, one hive-mind, one voice.
Able to dictate, for instance, the bodies being portrayed in fashion advertising campaigns, but unwilling to make the change to a more inclusive society because Conspiracy. The reason behind the painfully slow pace of change in this department isn’t in fact that psycho-glam. Shit is, in fact, changing. Just really slowly, rather than like flipping a switch. It changes half a step behind society itself, as people change their views and give feedback.
Change what people think, on average, and you’ll have changed what advertising reflects back to us.
So feedback is important, people. But be civil though. Because Big Advertising isn’t at the receiving end of your angry Facebook comment on Dove’s page.
Reading your comment at the other end of the internet connection, is a human being, with a life and struggle of their own, just trying to make a living doing what they’re good at, which is probably writing and social media. They’re probably a junior at that, tasked with the most painful of tasks: responding to angry page comments. I’ve done it too, in my junior years, so I can tell you, it never gets easier. At the end of the line, there’s a flawed and error prone animal just like every human. But for the better part of them, they’re just as decent as the rest of us, and so are the people who make the proverbial Buy Coke poster and those who dictate the Coke global brand trends and colour guidelines and such.
We’re not a Collective. Just a worldwide lowercase-c community made up of many minuscule pockets of people all around the globe who’ve never met each other but sometimes read the same blogs.
There is a global advertising community. We go to Cannes and stroke our egos with an award that mentions our name under the team credentials, if we’re seriously lucky and probably live on the office couch. (Don’t look at me, I have an awards shelf back at mine, come gaze upon such and thou shalt see that it is barren.)
We exchange blogs, industry news, we gossip about who in the industry is doing what, who got their names mentioned where, and all that jazz to be expected of any online-capable community of mortals somewhat united by their working in the same field.
Still, zero Worldwide Collective. It is extremely difficult to stage a Worldwide Anything, actually, if you think about it. Just fucking imagine the logistics of getting everyone involved to do something a certain way because Global Conspiracy. Regardless of your net worth or status. How would you go about meeting other like-minded sociopaths seeking to profit from the use of the lowest imaginable ethical standards? Do you start a Facebook group? Do you risk your status by bringing it up at parties and fundraisers in hopes of finding another rich person who will join your worldwide conspiracy rather than throw their drink in your face?
There is a team of 15 people or more just behind that one Coke poster at the mall. And then come the team in Spain who need to translate that in their own language, adapt it to their own public, their own formats and needs, their own national flavours. And they’ve never met the ones who designed the original reference poster. There’s a lot of logistical hassle in getting everyone involved in a given industry to stick to a worldwide conspiracy plan.
There is no board of Big Advertising trends who decides what gets pushed to the public by all of advertising in general. Just individual teams of nerds, doing our best to assess what potential buyers would relate to when deciding to purchase that type of product. I.e., get you to relate to Buy Coke vs. Buy Pepsi.
Of course, there are client demands and restrictions we must follow. But in my 11+ years writing in exchange for currency with predictably rising levels of success, those demands are never worldwide conspiracy level shit. They may be biased asks, but they’re not indicative of a worldwide conspiracy. More along the lines of ‘we don’t like that purple’ or ‘could you make that headline fit the 26-character-limit of our website content management system’ or ‘could you make the logo bigger’.
You can control this one TV station, for another example. But in a free-speech democracy, you can’t control The Media, because there is no The Media. It’s just a lot of individual journalists trying to feed themselves and their families by working in various places, but only being willing to go so far with stretching their ethics.
In other words, I will gladly lend my skills to helping promote an alcoholic beverage in exchange for currency, but not to underage people. I will happily help you sell your beer in exchange for a fee that pays my rent, but only to adults making adult decisions. I will craft my campaign to cater to an adult public in knowing it is displayed in adult-targeted settings. And I could not be bought or silenced into marketing alcohol to minors or being part of a team of people who do — because I just don’t think it’s right and would have trouble sleeping at night while doing it, as an average human being exhibiting average amounts of ethical flexibility.
Replace with Big Fucking Anything.
What exactly is Big Science? What does it look like? Is it a person? A roomful of people? How does it work?
The ‘there are assholes in the world’ argument
Don’t get me wrong. The pharma industry has its assholes. So does the science industry. Every fucking industry has assholes. Every group of anything has assholes. That’s just basic statistics we can probably all agree on. Regardless of the field you work in, you’ve met assholes working in it. Just, like, not everyone is one.
There is no Big Asshole with a big global conspiracy. Just some individual asshole making asshole moves, like selling doses of a lifesaving medication at exorbitant prices.
No single asshole has the power to stage a worldwide conspiracy of vaccinating people while ‘giving them autism’, because profit.
No single asshole has the power to withhold vital information from an entire collection of individual scientists, from the global community. Not even a small elite of assholes. Or a slightly bigger gathering of assholes.
Imagine staging a worldwide conspiracy. Think about it, in practice. What’s an average day in your life as the wielder of a worldwide conspiracy look like?
How exactly would you go about organising one?
Imagine you had all the money and resources in the world.
Now come back with all that shit in the practical IRL and let me know exactly how it is you plan to do it. Specifically. Break it down for me, step by step. As reddit nerds would put it, ELI5 this to me. To those who have grown up with a different internet culture:
Explain it to me like I’m 5. How exactly does one stage a Worldwide Conspiracy?
How do you go about convincing every individual microbiologist on the planet to hush-hush about vaccines causing autism, because Big Pharma? How exactly do you manage it? Because I’ve seen how much work it takes just to organise the team of 10 people who make one local Buy Coke poster. I cannot begin to imagine what organising a team of global secret conspiracy wielders would entail.
So, how do you get it organised? Do you keep the information from the scientists themselves? That would be impossible. That is the beauty of science. Everyone has the same information to review, perform experiments, and draw conclusions. If more individual people and groups of people working in that field reach the same conclusions independently during scientifically-sound experiments, we call that the scientific consensus.
Yet that is still, individually, a bunch of nerds who dedicated their entire lives to understanding the complex interworking of chemistry, biology, and the intricacies of the human body, in order to produce their contribution to the great body of science.
How the fuck would you go about convincing all of those individual people to hush-hush about it, because Big Pharma?
I’m not saying there aren’t assholes out there, sometimes happening to converge on similar asshole interests. I’m just saying, it’s not an elite of global assholes wielding our faith.
Individually, we are weak. Prone to error. To a shit-ton of cognitive biases. We’re sloppy, emotionally attached, subjective, and we’re imperfect. In other words, we’re human.
But put all of our individual conclusions together and see what replicates across the board, multiple times, in accurately documented studies? Now that is something anyone working in the field can validate. Try for themselves. Verify. Constantly adjust and update to allow for new evidence. That is something we can draw upon when making decisions for the greater good. It’s about as certain as anything gets.
Individually, one dude will make the honest mistake or asshole move (I didn’t personally know the guy) of claiming vaccines cause autism. Because he is this one dude, prone to human error and to emotional attachment to their own theories. Since then, thousands upon thousands of individual teams of formally-educated nerds who’ve never met one another have tried and failed to replicate his conclusions.
Yet people still Worldwide Conspiracy and I still fail to practically, in the IRL, understand how that conspiracy would be possible.
Have you ever met a biochemist who’s dedicated 30 years of their life to their craft, in an attempt to make the world a place of a little less suffering, and tried telling that person to their face that they’re part of a worldwide conspiracy to give everyone the autism?
They are not ‘the other’ or ‘the Big Pharma’. They’re people. Who’ve dedicated their lives to the hope of making the world a better, less painful place, only to be treated like the devil’s favourite utensil.
Those are teams of individual people like you and me making up that scientific consensus. Not a roomful of rich conspiracy plotting people, but individual human beings like everyone else, who just happen to work in a different field than you do, living across the globe.
That scientist who’s worked their entire life to acquire the skills and knowledge required to produce that one vial of vaccine that will save one child from facing the prospects of polio?
She has a three-year-old daughter. She vaccinates her own child.
How exactly do you go about ‘silencing’ her? Or withholding information from her, when that information is but a collection of replicable findings that she’s spent her entire career learning to follow along with?
My beef with Worldwide Conspiracy, with Big Anything, isn’t why. I get why one individual psychopath would find ways of justifying the lowest of the lowest of human behaviours. I’m a big a girl, so I know some people are just real fucking assholes.
But not all people working in a field. That’s a lot of different people, with different life stories and backgrounds.
So how exactly would you go about said conspiracy in practice, as a psychopath with all the money and the social capital achievable in the world? How exactly would you go about influencing and coercing every
of those individual scientists working in the field, into knowingly ‘giving people autism’?
That is, ignoring for a minute how ignorant of the autism spectrum and how insultingly oversimplifying this entire ‘theory’ sounds, how oblivious to the realities of those living on the spectrum it is to reduce an entire group of brains to a conspiracy theory. We’ll put a pin on all of that.
And still, pin and all, my failure to understand the logic persists.
My problem with worldwide conspiracy theories isn’t the why. It’s the how. Yet every such theory goes to great lengths explaining why (which I can imagine myself), yet when it comes to the real-fucking-life practical steps of the how, they all get foggy and mysterious or use purposefully vague terms like ‘they control’. It’s those how-s I can’t imagine. And those I’d like explained. How do they control? Not some fiction about why, but a practical guide to the how.
My problem with conspiracy theories is precisely: people. There are a lot of them involved, in fields like pharma and science. And I believe a great many of them don’t have the ethics of a psychopath and can’t be bought or silenced. Because, there’s that basic statistics argument again, not all fucking people are psychopaths — statistically speaking, most of them aren’t. People tend to, on average, not be psychopaths. If you choose to live in a world where you assume everyone you meet is a psychopath, I’m sincerely sorry for you. But I refuse to live in it.
On average, I know people in any broad field, like science, medicine, advertising, media, etc., are decent. Because people in general are, on average, not psychopaths, and therefore do not, on average, display the ethics of such.
Humans will be human: imperfect, prone to error, emotional, subjective, biased, and tired. Individually, some humans can even be assholes. But together, as a species in general, we’re not, on average, that bad. The better part of us may be annoying sometimes in meetings, we may act selfishly or even act like real assholes sometimes. But the majority of us are not Hannibal-Lecter-level-ethics assholes.
The ‘I’ve done my research’ argument
If more people in one field reach the same thoroughly documented conclusion, after having dedicated their careers to doing so, I trust their judgement as a community, made up of countless individuals who’ve analysed the same evidence to reach that same conclusion without ever having met each other, over my sole judgement as someone working outside the field, and over the judgement of one discredited dude with an invalidated study working in that specific field.
I guess we’ll call it being a little fucking humble:
No matter how much on-the-side reading I do on the fascinating topic of biology and the human body, unless I dedicate the following 20 years to exposing myself to various opinions and ideas in the field and building my solid understand of what’s going on through eons of academic study, I have no real chance of getting it. Though some stuff can be ELI5-ed to me, I don’t really get it-get it. It’s just impossible. The complexity involved is beyond my ability to catch up superficially.
Unlike a worldwide conspiracy, understanding of the intricacies of the human body is not something one can acquire through cash or through being the president of the United States. They’re a lifelong investment and constant quest for knowledge. A fulltime fucking job, not something you can comprehend on the tube on your way to work or buy along with your status.
But I don’t have to get it-get it. In fact, with a solid rhetoric and a little science jargon, I’m painfully aware of the fact that I could feel like a blatantly false theory makes sense. I could feel like I get it. Because I lack the solid foundation, made up of decades of study and research, required to call the bullshit-talker out on their bullshit. So, instead of taking my own epiphanies too seriously after having read this book by Dr. Conspiracy Theory, I fall back onto the help of my fellow human beings and trust their scientific consensus.
Really thorough scientists don’t even trust their own conclusions until other teams of scientists working independently have analysed the same evidence and come to the same documented, measurable conclusions.
I can satisfy my curiosity by reading about science and biology, but I can’t fully trust my judgement on these matters or take my own conclusions too seriously. I fall back onto the judgement of my fellow human beings, the individuals just like me, who only happen to have dedicated their lives to a different field.
Trust me, I’ve seen academics in neurobiology attempting to put together a PowerPoint presentation — and it’s not a pretty sight. They’ve definitely dedicated their lives to another field than I have. If they can suck that badly at something as seemingly simple as a PowerPoint slide while feeling they’re doing a decent job of getting this PowerPoint thing (#notallneurobiologists, buuut), then I can only imagine how fucking badly I must suck at getting neurobiology.
I’ll choose to trust all of them lot who’ve spent their lives understanding this, over myself. It’s not that I think I’m particularly dumb. I’m just not thousands of independent scientists who’ve reached a consensus after decades of painstaking research. So, you go science over there — and for reason’s sake, let me fix that presentation for you.
Do you find me naive in my understanding of humanity, or too trusting in my decision-making tactics? Let’s have a respectful debate about how this works — if you know me, you know I’m an ardent lover of debate.
And, as ever, thank you for joining me in this conversation. Until next time — stay safe, nerds.