How Ray Kurzweil Sells His Junk Science

Last Updated Jun 17, 2010 8:41 AM EDT

I've noted several times in this blog that you can learn a lot about how to sell by examining how religious organizations roll out their messages, deploy their channels, train their salespeople, and so forth. However, one of the most interesting examples of this type of activity is the selling of junk science.

Just to be clear, real science doesn't need to be "sold." It exists on its own merits and the statements and theories devised by real scientists can be proved and disproved. With real science, there is evidence and while evidence can be interpreted in different ways, it's not constructed out of whole cloth.

Junk science, by contrast, is not science at all. It is faith-based, and depends upon what people wish were true rather than what's actually supported by evidence. As such, junk science always has a large component of salesmanship involved.

John Brinkley
Most junk science exists in the realm of the medicine. The most effective salesman of the last century was radio pioneer John Brinkley, who became a multimillionaire in the 1930s by convincing millions of Americans that he could restore male virility by implanting goat glands. His story is told in the excellent book: Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster.
In recent years, the most egregious (although admittedly less dangerous) example of selling junk science, IMHO, is Ray Kurzweil's continued hyping of what he calls the "Singularity." That selling pitch is going full steam, as shown by the recent puff piece published in the business section of Sunday's New York Times.

The "singularity" is the mythical point where computers become able to think like humans. It's junk science because there's not a shred of evidence that computers are getting any more intelligent in this manner. (For more on why Kurzweil-style artificial intelligence is junk science, read this article in Skeptic magazine; for more on AI as a flimflam business read this article which later appeared in Red Herring magazine.)

Ray Kurzweil
Suffice it to say there have been no significant breakthroughs in AI software algorithms for decades, which is why applications based on pattern recognition and natural language processing, etc. are only marginally better than they were 50 years ago, despite the fact that computers are billions of times faster.

Why do I bring this up? Simple. Guys like Brinkley and Kurzweil are brilliant pitchmen, so it's worthwhile examining their techniques, since those techniques can be useful even in sales situations where the product isn't a load of hooey.

Here are the rules for selling junk science, based upon Brinkley's and Kurzweil's methods:
  • #1: Tie your product to the customer's fears. Brinkley constantly played on the fear of loss of virility. Kurzweil promotes the notion that we will someday transferring human brains into computers, thereby avoiding death.
  • #2: Tie your product to popular culture. Brinkley built his medical treatment around popular religion with a revival-tent flavor. Kurzweil's pitch leverages popular beliefs about robots culled from decades of cheap science fiction.
  • #3: Have multiple products to sell. Brinkley build an entire distribution channel for dozens of patent medicines. Kurzweil has multiple business ventures, including a hedge fund that supposedly uses his advanced AI techniques.
  • #4: Use social proof rather than scientific proof. Brinkley constantly trotted out men who would testify how the goat glands had made them young and fit. Kurzweil constantly cites other high tech figures who share his wacky beliefs (many of whom were big boosters of the Y2K hoax.)
  • #5: Argue from authority rather than fact. Brinkley constantly cited his numerous medical degrees and awards. Anyone who criticizes Kurzweil on the web is immediately treated to a list of his degrees and awards, as if that had any significance whatsoever.
  • #6: Spread the BS as thickly as possible. Brinkley often cited non-existent authorities that supported his work. When I interview Kurzweil in 2002, he cited a non-existent Gartner study supporting his viewpoint. (Here's a PDF of that article which appeared in Red Herring magazine) .
  • #7: Treat real science as junk science. Brinkley constantly questioned the validity of scientific research published by the AMA. Kurzweil is well known for his opinion that climate change -- one the best documented trends in the world -- is actually a huge hoax.
  • #8: When all else fails, trot out your family. Brinkley constantly used his son as "proof" that goat glands really worked. The NY Times article ends with a testimonial about Kurzweil's credibility from (of all people) Kurzweil's own son. As if that had any value whatsoever.
  • #9 Use gullible reporters to get your message out. Brinkley constantly schmoozed reporters to get them to write positive stories. Kurzweil cultivates excessively gullible tech reporters like Ashlee Vance to swallow his story whole.
So there you have it: the precise recipe for selling junk science (or any other kind of flimflam) to a gullible public. Needless to say, these techniques can also be put to use selling products that (unlike goat-testicle virility and the long-predicted singularity) actually exist.

In fact, with products that actually exist or have the likelihood of actually existing, these techniques are even more effective, because you don't have to depend on them. You have reality on your side... and that's always a huge advantage in a sales situation.
  • Geoffrey James

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