Paul Wong could have called his San Francisco dry-cleaning business something cute, like Freedom of the Press or Iron Man. He could have chosen a provocative name like Big Red A Cleaners, my childhood favorite after I watched comedian Steve Allen telephone that Los Angeles establishment and ask, right on TV, how much it would cost to have his big red A cleaned. (As an eight-year-old I believed I would never hear a wittier remark. And I grew up in Whittier, California. Yes, I know who else grew up in Whittier. No, after resigning from the presidency he did not return to his hometown and open the It Would Be Wrong Cleaners.)
Wong could have called his place Acme Cleaners or E-Z-Duz-It Cleaners or Paul’s Cleaners or It Would Be Wong Cleaners. But he called it Scientific Cleaners.
The name makes us stand out from our competition, says Wong. It turns people on. If we’re scientific, we must be better.
Variations on that sentiment popped up again and again during a rather unscientific but highly Scientific national survey of businesses with that word or some variation in their names. Whatever their service or product, from Scientific Record Management of Miami to Scientific Drilling of New Orleans to Scientific Windows of Chicago--where do you think NASA gets those windows of opportunity they’re always talking about?--what these companies share, aside from the fact that receptionists at 99 percent of them answer the phone Scientific! is the belief that the word impresses customers.
My father chose our name because the things we do are relatively technical, and it makes us sound qualified to do them, says Mark Coleman, vice president of Scientific Models of Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was hoping to find that the firm arranges for lectures by cover girls with hidden specialities: Christie Brinkley on the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, say, or Cindy Crawford explaining genetic engineering. But it turns out they make architectural models of buildings-to-be and mock-ups of new products from missiles to medical equipment. Adds Coleman, The name also makes us sound more on the expensive end. Do you imagine that the slogan of a place called Scientific Models would be CT-Scan Prototypes: Buy Two, Get a Free Beverage? Certainly not.
Chicago psychologist Marvin Pitluk founded Scientific Selection Personnel Services to move one product: a vocational aptitude test he developed when a friend in the insurance business told him it couldn’t be done. He said they had tests that gave personnel people a pretty good idea of who’s highly competent and who’s incompetent, but no test to tell them who was in-between--who had some potential but certain limitations. Pitluk researched, devised, and perfected such an instrument, and called it the Scientific Selection Personnel Services Test. As a person who believes in the methodology of the scientist, says Pitluk, who also has a full-time clinical practice, I wanted customers--the companies that buy the test--to know that this wasn’t a matter of guesswork, but put together with the best knowledge science had available.
Lee Jorik’s nom du commerce, The Science Man, may not instantly suggest that he can meet all your fossilized dinosaur dung needs. But the Harwood Heights, Illinois, entrepreneur can do that and more. Not merely a purveyor of primordial poop, The Science Man sells science books to schools througha catalog that features proven kid-pleasers like Science Experiments You Can Eat and Blood & Guts: A Working Guide to Your Insides. It also offers scientific novelties, including the dinosaur dung ($14.95 to $24.95--depending on size and availability--and not a big seller, he says) and anitem so fabulous that I’ll never part with mine, the Lucky Whining Cicada key chain, a plastic, battery-operated insect with flashing green eyes and a surreal two-note whine that recalls the sound of Rodan the Flying Monster in the Japanese movie. (According to the package, it is part of a forest bug series, but Jorik is aware of no other forest bugs represented.)
I wanted a name that was unique but descriptive, explains The Science Man, but I also thought about how the connotation of the word science has evolved. Once it meant a guarantee of superiority and excellent engineering, and it had a sort of mystique. Now I think it suggests something still superior, but less esoteric, more practical and understandable. Today mysteries are unfolding faster: twenty-five years ago most of us didn’t know what DNA was. Today the average person can not only give you a rough definition, he or she can draw the double helix.
We’ll never know what inspired the baptism of the now defunct Scientific Marriage Institute of New York, which offered couples counseling. (You may remember their compendium of case studies, Can This Scientific Marriage Be Saved? My favorite was the one in which Marie Curie gets Pierre to stop leaving wet towels on the bathroom floor.) Scientific Tire Chain Rebuilders of Omaha is no more. Ask Scientific Astrological Research of Miami its sign, and it would have to answer closed. Scientific Solutions of Chicago has dissolved.
One firm posed an intriguing problem of modification: Do the folks at Scientific Fire Prevention of New York prevent fires scientifically, or do they prevent scientific fires only, capering wildly about other sorts of conflagrations, fanning the flames and toasting marshmallows? I don’t know, because they won’t return my calls.
Only one person I talked to actually regretted having the word scientific in his company name. We’re the oldest ear mold lab in the country, says Jeffrey Stegman, co-owner of Scientific Plastics in New York. Fifty years ago his father founded and named the company, which custom-makes ear molds for hearing aids and recently began creating customized ear molds for personal stereo headphones. Back then, ours was a strange and exotic name. The plastics industry was at the forefront of technology at the time, and the name suggested confidence and newness; it had more cachet. Now it’s run-of-the-mill, old-fashioned. I’d like to change the name to Ear Mold Express. Scientific is passé, says Stegman. But can we believe a guy who favors a name evoking a quick excavation with a Q-Tip?
As head of a consulting firm called the Name Works, Sharon Livingston makes regular forays into the nomen’s land of corporate America: businesses pay her big bucks to name them and their products. She’s the person who came up with Teddy Grahams (for the bear-shaped crackers) and the American Express Platinum Card. (It was a natural, she says modestly. Discarded names included President’s and Diamond. Play-Doh was never considered.)
Handler Livingston has spotted a revival. The words science or scientific were popular components of business and brand names in the fifties, and now they’re being revisited, she says. The eighties were a time of pampering, of fluff, and we’ve swung away from that. Now people are trying to convey professionalism, seriousness, no frills: ‘Come to us to get the real stuff.’ It’s interesting that Science Diet brand dog food was struggling in the eighties, and now everyone’s copying them.
The words scientific and science create an aura of problem- solving, accountability, practicality, mathematical precision, says Livingston, who does rigorous research herself; she doesn’t just christen a company, then pray to Saint Moniker that the name is a keeper. And yet there’s the almost mystical feeling that science finds solutions that go beyond the merely systematic to encompass the almost mystical. Science is practical and sexy: the librarian who takes off her glasses and is beautiful.
Ecclesiastes said, A good name is like a precious ointment, and that was several centuries before Clearasil. The bottom line: when commerce plays the name game with science, the public sees the combination as a winner. (Rock-and-roll purists among you will insist that there’s only one way to play the name game with Science. Fine. According to the formula devised by Professor Shirley Ellis, the noted funkologist, that would be Science science bo bience/Banana fana fo fience/Fee fi mo mience/ Science. Happy now?)
Ecclesiastes’ pronouncement is borne out by the work of Jon Miller, vice president of the Chi-cago Academy of Sciences. He’s been chronicling the public’s attitude toward science for nearly two decades. Since 1979 he’s produced data for a volume of findings, the Science Indicator Series, put out every two years by the National Science Board.
A National Association of Science Writers survey made in 1957, he says, just before Sputnik, in a pre-space-age world, asked ‘Would you say the world is better off or worse off because of science?’ Eighty-eight percent of respondents said ‘better off.’
In 1988 I asked the same question of two thousand adults. And eighty-nine percent of those polled said better off. Public confidence in science and scientists remains consistently high, he says, despite glitches like Chernobyl and the Dalkon shield.
For 20 years, Miller says, the General Social Survey series done by the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago has asked people how much they trust various occupational groups to do the right thing and tell them the truth. Scientists have always had a high rating. Only Supreme Court justices and physicians have a higher trust rating than scientists--but that was before the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. The lowest rated: used-car salesmen, legislators, and journalists.
Naturally, people try to market that respect, Miller says. Many of the pharmaceutical companies do it--pretend their over-the-counter painkiller is scientifically superior, though they’re all compounded in the same way. Car manufacturers selling science, like Volvo and Mercedes, who say they have better engineered cars, come out ahead. People believe that something scientific is better than something not scientific.
We take to heart--and lungs--what scientists say, according to Miller. In 1979 we asked people, ‘Have you changed your behavior as a result of reading horoscopes?’ Five percent said yes. We also asked, later in the survey, ‘Have you, in the course of the last year, started or quit eating something because of a magazine article reporting a health study?’ Fifty percent said that they had. That’s ten for the mice and one for the astrologers. (Sic transit Scientific Astrological Research of Miami.)
I ask in the biannual indicator series whether it’s highly likely, moderately likely, or not likely that science will find a cure for cancer in twenty years, says Miller. Most people answer highly likely. It’s hard to find something people don’t think science will be able to do in twenty years: create cheap energy, desalinate seawater, cure disease.
About the only thing people believe science can’t do in twenty years is predict criminality by studying young people.
Is it any wonder, then, that people have faith that science has created the perfect trouser crease or ear mold or dog food? I expect that any day now, one of my favorite restaurants will change its name to Two Scientific Guys from Italy Pizzeria.