Communication and the Market for Lemons

“In a market where the seller has more information about the product than the buyer, bad products can drive the good ones out of the market.”

In an article on Wired, Bruce Schneier attributes this observation to economist George Akerloff. He discusses the implications for computer security products, which need not concern us here.

A Slashdot reader summarizes neatly: “when deep quality metrics are unavailable, customers will base their decisions on shallow metrics instead.”

What does this have to do with our interests here? In attempting to communicate science in the face of organized opposition we have a fundamentally different task than is conventionally true of science outreach. In the past, scientific communication with the public had to overcome indifference, but now we have to overcome opposition. In other words, we are in a competitive situation.

We have the quality product, but producing the shoddy competition is easier and cheaper. The buyer (the lay person, the journalist, the politician) has only weak signals on which to base their decisions.

It’s not enough to be good, my fifth grade teacher Mrs. Adair, once told her class. (This is the single fact I have retained about Mrs. Adair.) You also have to look good.

I’ve never forgotten this advice, and it took me a very long time to forgive it. I disliked it from the beginning, as many scientists and other intellectual types are wont to do. She is right. This is because it is difficult for the lay person to process the deep information. We must take care that our shallow information is in good shape as well.

There are a lot of ideas competing for everyone’s attention these days. We can’t get the real dimensions of the sustainability problem across to people if they don’t listen. They won’t listen if they think we are a bunch of half-crazed hippies.

Once we start offering advice, we have to project calm authority, and that means we have to look like what people imagine scientists to look like. (I think this might be set mostly by the demeanor of medical professionals, the closest thing most people see to a scientist.)

I don’t like it, but it seems to me that in the end Mrs. Adair was right.

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