Enough With 'Raising Awareness' Already

And now, for your morning dose of curmudgeonly griping, I ask: Can we do away with "raising awareness" already?

I suppose because I don't spend as much time on Facebook as many people, I just found out today about the "ice bucket challenge," wherein you challenge people to either pour a bucket of ice over their heads or donate to charity. It apparently started among people looking to raise awareness about ALS, and of course money. Here's a bit of explanation from Think Progress:

The rules are simple: Players have 24 hours to either to pour a bucket of ice cold water over their head on camera or contribute money to the charity of their choice. After they’ve made their decision, they appoint three more people to do the same.

The “ice bucket challenge” has taken social media by storm and shed light on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a genetic disorder also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Martha Stewart, Lance Bass, Matt Lauer and other notable stars have taken part in the challenge in the weeks since Pete Frates, a former Boston College baseball captain who developed ALS two years ago, kicked off the games via social media.

I'm sure that everyone who does this has their hearts in the right place, and far be it from me to tell people they shouldn't pour ice water over their heads. While I don't know anything about the current state of research into ALS, more money would certainly be welcome. But is there really a lack of awareness about ALS? And what exactly would more awareness produce?

There are some ailments where heightened awareness might translate into early detection, and therefore fewer people suffering from the ailment. We can raise awareness about the dangers of certain behaviors linked to a particular disease, and that might lead to healthier habits. But ALS isn't a disease you can prevent by eating more whole grains, and there's very little that can be done to arrest its progress it once you know you have it.

This is the problem with a lot of how we raise money for medical research. We want to give people something to do besides writing a check, because that makes them feel active and engaged and useful, and gives them a lot of positive feeling that can translate into future involvement. But if the thing you do—whether it's running a 10K or pouring a bucket of ice water over your head—doesn't actually get other people to write checks, there's a danger that it will all seem like a waste of time. So the easiest thing to say is that by being public about your interest in this cause you've "raised awareness," which sadly means next to nothing most of the time.

With regard to some diseases, "raising awareness" has almost become an entire industry. Not only are there charlatans who use it to scam people, there are also a lot of efforts that use up people's time and money and accomplish nothing more than creating a self-sustaining cycle: We have to raise money to raise awareness so we can keep raising money and raising awareness.

I'm not saying anyone campaigning to fund ALS research falls into that category. And if this helps them raise more money, that's terrific. But any time I hear that a campaign is about "raising awareness," I assume it's going to be a lot of effort that ends up doing little more than making its participants feel good. Which is something, but it may not be quite what it's being sold as.

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