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Here comes the science bit... 
5th-Oct-2009 02:26 pm
webcomics, science
You will all be pleased to know that back in the NHM, Ford the laptop is working just as he did last week; he's not working very well, but I have access to my thesis and a 17" screen and decent sized keyboard to write it on, so that's good enough for me. It's backing up to the college Citrix neighbourhood right now, just in case. AND I have a little tiny EEE PC (working name: Eddeee) for non-thesis work, and that's good too. If I hadn't lost two days last week, I'd be happy.

Anyway, I said I'd get back to Real Blogging, not just whining about my life.

Last Tuesday I attended the launch of the L'Oreal Young Scientist Centre at the Royal Institution. Fortunately it's calling itself the YSC so we can eventually drop the sponsor name from the title, but it was the sponsor that I wanted to talk about, as I learned some important things last week.

The YSC was opened by Baroness Greenfield, in conjunction with a lady representing L'Oreal. I'll admit I have no opinion on Susan Greenfield due to an underexposure to the field she popularises, but her wikipedia page says she works to raise awareness of Alzeimer's and Parkinson's, and those are worthy causes to espouse. I was, however, a little taken back by the smug pally-ness that emanated from her and the sponsor-VP. There's something that makes me uneasy about a scientific institution (The RI - I'm not trying to imply that Greenfield is an institution) allying itself with a cosmetics company.

I mean, I would have something to say if it were a Big Pharma company  - and I know scientists who work for those companies and they do do science, but L'Oreal, and science? This is the company that produced these ads:

They're iconic by now, aren't they? A female actor - sometimes a model or a singer, but with L'Oreal it's usually a character actor - comes on and quips about how good she feels in this beauty product, and then here comes the science... and am authoritative disembodied male voice informs us from on high what the product actually does...

...except it doesn't. Not really. It throws computer animations and long words at us, and pretends to be science, but honestly?

Let's look at the claim made by that commercial - that the shampoo contains a replication of ceramide - a type of lipid molecules (fats) that forms part of the cell membrane and provides a structural role. L'Oreal's replicated substance - ceramide-r (the R stands for 'research') is somehow picked up by dead cells that make up hair and strengthen it. A Google Scholar search for ceramide-r produces no results about that substance. A Google search result produces as the top result a website hosted by L'Oreal called hair-science.net, and further down the page an Indie article from 2001. Charles Arthur actually phoned up shampoo company helplines and asked for an explanation, with no results.

Well, that L'Oreal clearly wants to be considered as this big dispensary of science, so much so that it peppers all its ads with science-y sounding words and maintains a website, the sole purpose of which is to promote all the important science it does on dead cells growing from our skin, but doesn't appear to publish any research for peer review. According to Arthur's article, in fact, the results produced by labs in support of such things as 'ceramide-R' are at concentrations far above what a shampoo would contain, and yet that 's the primary marketing gimmick for that shampoo - or any of its products

I don't doubt that L'Oreal employs people with a science background - there are job vacancies looking for qualified scientists, after all. But is this science for results or science for the appearance of doing science? It pumps a lot of money into science, and I can't fault it for that. The Young Scientist Centre at the Royal Institution is a great educational facility, and a potentially amazing resource for schools wishing to enthuse their kids with science. With UNESCO, they give out awards for women in science - another worthy cause and an area that needs encouragement. But why promote such great things for science if their main form of interacting with the public is to spread pseudoscience for profit?

I have hair - I have a lot of hair. I'll admit I hardly conform to the same gender stereotype as the women who are clearly L'Oreal's target audience, but I'm surely a consumer shampoos want to attract, because I use a large volume of hair products just to keep my large volume of hair clean. I don't know why it seems that my hair gets cleaner if I which shampoo lines every few months. I don't know why it is that conditioner, if I use a lot of it, cuts the time taken to brush my hair down to only twenty minutes a day. When people stop me in the street (and they do) to ask me if I have a miracle product for my hair, I just say "lots of conditioner, cut of the split bits, and don't overload it with crap". I don't know ceramide-r from pro-vitamins from nutrileum. My brand loyalty comes from ease of use (Lush solid shampoos have such a good coverage that one bar can last months. Anything in a bottle is more likely to last me weeks) and the attachment I have to remaining blonde as long as possible (so I go for conditioners containing gentle bleaches like citric acid, although come to blog it, it'd be cheaper to use a lemon). I just - don't do things that'll break my hair.

It's the haircare equivalent of 'eat lots of fruit and vegetables, take exercise and don't overdo drugs' formula for health, when really everyone wants to know what dietary supplements and magic pills will fix all their problems - we've heard that before and more and more people are coming out now to say 'now, wait a minute...'.

Less so in cosmetics, and part of that is that cosmetics are packaged up in a multimillion pound publicity phenomenon founded by Jennifer Aniston telling millions of women that if they want to look good, they just need to trust the male authority spouting nonsense words.

What grates with me is the sheer hypocrisy of it. If L'Oreal really want to enthuse young people about science; if they really want women to go into science, if they want to empower female scientists, then they should look at themselves and their base level of engagement. It stinks of a sweatshop owner pouring money into philanthropy; putting money into science engagement for women and young people doesn't really clear one's karma if you made that money through bamboozling young women with a dressed up excuse for science.

If you want to encourage women to engage with science, then job #1 would be to get rid of 'the science bit'
5th-Oct-2009 01:51 pm (UTC)
This is very good indeed.
5th-Oct-2009 02:07 pm (UTC)
ooh ooh! Me and Dave always sneer at the term "scientifically proven" when it appears in a Loreal ad.

And I can't stand Garnier going on about "anti-aging" creams either. If your creams work then why do you put vaseline all over the lens when you film the model?
5th-Oct-2009 02:12 pm (UTC)
Playing spot the ridiculous word is fun too!

It's just that they're doing these things for the scientific community as well! I want to say "thank you for all the money you're giving us, now can you please stop saying bad things about us to everyone?"
5th-Oct-2009 02:15 pm (UTC)
Playing spot the ridiculous word is fun too!

Oh you mean like "Ultra-set-Deep-Wrinkle" lol.

It's just that they're doing these things for the scientific community as well! I want to say "thank you for all the money you're giving us, now can you please stop saying bad things about us to everyone?"

If it's any consolation, I don't think science or scientists when I see those ads, I think B.S. advertising executives.
5th-Oct-2009 02:21 pm (UTC)
But you think about those things when you hear them. Whether its beleiavble or not is not the point - it's still bad science.
5th-Oct-2009 02:29 pm (UTC)
I'm not saying it's not bad science, I'm just saying I personally don't believe it. Unfortunately, from Loreal's sales it appears the vast majority of people do.
5th-Oct-2009 02:30 pm (UTC)
5th-Oct-2009 02:42 pm (UTC) - Greenfield
I used to have the most Awesome respect for Susan Greenfield. She wrote an excellent layman/laylady's book on the Human Brain, she was a respected neuroscientist, she was a bit of a hero.

Then she lost it.

My heart sank when I read that she's buddied up with L'Oreal, mostly because it doesn't surprise me.

A little while ago she started up a Thing about how Social Media was making us all stupid. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/feb/24/social-networking-site-changing-childrens-brains Sounds dumb, but it's Greenfield, so there may be something to it, right?

Sigh... no.

As explained by good ol' Ben Goldacre, that was just some - REALLY - bad science. And frankly she should have known better. In every possible way. http://www.badscience.net/2009/02/the-evidence-aric-sigman-ignored/

I wouldn't mind so much if she wasn't one of the few female scientists with any public clout. Ah well, c'est la vie.

(z_rose on twitter, btw!)
5th-Oct-2009 02:50 pm (UTC) - Re: Greenfield
Thank you! There was, in the part of my brain that reads Goldacre, a bell ringing on hearing her name but I couldn't remember what and I didn't want to witchhunt for reasons to hate on her for this post.

I do hope she's just forgotten slipped in her rigour with things like that social media and hasn't just sold out for the money.

PS, you can leave comments here with OpenID, if you wish. I don't know if it takes twitter.
(Deleted comment)
5th-Oct-2009 04:03 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this essay. The problem of corporations polishing themselves up by funding science seems to be getting worse these days because, at least where I'm standing, the government doesn't want to do as much of the funding as it used to. BP has sent an enormous amount of money to my university to study biofuels; does that make its gasoline any less bad for the environment than anyone else's gasoline? Sadly, no.
5th-Oct-2009 06:05 pm (UTC)
TO be fair, whatever science (or pseudoscience, or magic!) let them come up with L'Oreal's Vive conditioner for wavy/curly hair? Is awesome. It's discontinued now and I cry forever because no other conditioner I've tried is as nice at detangling my hair and keeping it nicely curly. IDK what they put in that one that makes it better than all the others, but it was amazing.
5th-Oct-2009 06:27 pm (UTC)
Aw! I'm sorry :(
5th-Oct-2009 09:43 pm (UTC)
What Jennie said. I especially hate the L'oreal stuff because they're a Nestle company... just pure, absolute, scum of the earth types. Those ads are incredibly sexist, anti-science, and just... GAAAAAH!
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