Friday, 23 August 2013

Pearl extract and the importance of critical thinking

At the supermarket recently, I was browsing the shampoo aisle and spotted a brand that proudly proclaimed it contained “pearl extract”.  I couldn’t help imagining the conversation that took place when they came up with that idea.

Marketing person rushes excitedly into R&D lab.

Marketing: I’ve worked out what we need for the new shampoo!  People want their hair to be smooth and shiny, right?  And what’s smoother and shinier than a pearl?  Let’s put pearl extract in the shampoo!

Chemist: Pearl extract?  You mean calcium carbonate?  You know that’s pretty much the same thing as chalk, right?

Marketing: No, no, we don’t want to put chalk in the shampoo.  Chalk’s not smooth and shiny.  We need pearl extract.  Just extract the smooth and shininess from the pearls and put that in.

Chemist:  Extract the... But the smoothness of pearls comes from their physical structure, not from the compounds making them up.  It’s like if you asked me to extract the beauty from the Mona Lisa – all you’d get is paint and canvas.

Marketing:  Hmm, Mona Lisa beauty extract... that’s not a bad idea...

Chemist (reaching for the calcium carbonate bottle): Pearl extract it is then!

As well as making me laugh, this imagined scenario reminded me of one of the most important reasons for higher education: to develop critical thinking skills.  I’ve never studied chemistry, so I didn’t know exactly what the major chemical component of pearls was (I checked Wikipedia before writing this), but rather than just thinking “pearls = smooth and shiny” when I saw the label (as I’m sure the marketing person would have liked me to), critical thinking kicked in and I wondered what pearl extract actually meant, and whether it would actually improve the shampoo.  Those few seconds of thought led me to the conclusion that pearls must be made of the same stuff as seashells, and that chalk is made of crushed seashells, so pearl extract probably actually means chalk.  And suddenly that expensive bottle of shampoo didn’t seem much better than the cheaper one sitting beside it.

Ok, so saving a few dollars by seeing through some marketing hype may not be a huge thing, but when you multiply that by all the decisions you make over the course of a lifetime, the ability to see beyond the immediately obvious and think more critically becomes a very valuable thing.  And that is something you’ll acquire from university study, no matter what you’re majoring in (yes, even if you’re majoring in marketing – my imagined scenario above is a long way from reality, where the marketer’s use of the word “pearl” in the branding would have been a very considered and calculated decision).  I’d go so far as to say that critical thinking is the most important skill you’ll acquire from your study – it’s applicable to virtually every area of your life and it’ll never get out of date.

So next time someone asks what you’re studying, tell them “critical thinking”. 

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