The accessiblity for writing in public and self-publishing is amazing. I feel very fortunate to enjoy a few venues in which to do this. I have a passion for factual reality, and I want to spread the good news. I do love the opportunity to put my ideas out there for critical thinkers to pick over. I love learning and refining my perspective, and I love lively discussion in the comments here.
In real life I encounter far more diversity of rationality. It’s much harder to communicate. Culture, or psychology, or ideology, or misinformation often gets in my way. Which is both fascinating and incredibly frustrating. I’m also terrible at masking my emotions. “What the hell is wrong with you?” is easy to read between the lines on my face.
How can I convince someone of the fact of climate change when he earnestly believes that a skiff of snow anywhere on the planet is evidence that the climate is fine? How do successful science communicators bring reason to bear in public and private discourse?
Writer Greg Correll has a fascinating article about graphically representing information. He advocates all kinds of visual shenanigans to enrich written content.
On the 7 November episode of the Point of Inquiry podcast, host Chris Mooney interviewed Bill Nye (The Science Guy). It was a great discussion about how to communicate with people who are either scientifically illiterate or who for other reasons deny factual reality. One compelling example Money and Nye covered was climate change.
Mooney asked Nye to advise scientists who want to do a better job communicating to the public, especially in hostile media venues where interviews devolve into shouting. Nye responded with three points: keep the answers short; listen to the first question; remember that it’s a process and chip away at it.
One problem in the public discourse is that scientists tend to over-qualify their responses, and that leads the general public to infer scientific ambiguity.
Mooney, “I think I’ve seen research showing that the IPCC climate change language that they use, which is meant to convey a high degree of certainty, they say ‘very likely’ at this point. [...] When an average person hears it, they think that it’s less certain…”
Nye, “Oh, man! Absolutely! And the other example is they asked a guy [...] ‘Is this uh, atom-smasher in CERN, the um, Large Hadron Collider, is it going to cause, can it cause a black hole…in Switzerland, that will consume the earth in a matter of hours?’ And he said, ‘That’s very unlikely.’ And by that he meant, whatever the expression is, twenty sigma to the left of anything that would go wrong. But because he didn’t say, ‘Absolutely not!’ in parentheses, ‘you nutcase, you dingbat,’ uh, people just exactly as you said, seized on it. [...]
You have to talk to people. ‘No! No black hole! Not gonna happen! Uh, in order to get a black hole, you need, now I’m not an expert, but roughly the mass of six suns. Six of our stars. We don’t have that, so chill.’”
Another amazingly effective science communicator, Neil Degrasse Tyson, was a guest on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe November 19th podcast. The interview begins around thirty six minutes into the episode. Podcast co-host Jay Novella calls Tyson a rock star and asks,
“Now I’m the lowly musician that just bought a guitar, and I want to know how to become a rock star. Is it really a huge portion luck, is there a secret that you stumbled on, is there an avenue that we could practice?”
Tyson spends a great deal of time talking about noticing when, why, and where people are interested. He studies people. He tries to figure out what engages people. He watches his audience for pupil dilation and adjusts his presentations to keep them interested. This requires him to arrive over-prepared and loose on his feet with pop culture references and humor to keep his audience involved.
Tyson and SGU host Steve Novella go on to discuss the importance of incorporating multiple sensory modalities into communication and creating graphical and visual references for people that adds information to the content.
Tyson, “My body is drawing a picture, when it can, of the content that I’m delivering. [...] Students learn more deeply the more senses you can excite in the effort of teaching them. [...] I think we should use all available ways to inform the senses that people have brought.”
Steve Novella, “The research backs that up, too. What you learned is backed up by a lot of research that shows, yeah, there’s lots of ways to affect the retention and people’s attention. [...] Every sensory modality you add adds to people’s perception and retention of the information you’re trying to get across.”
Which reminded me of Smell-O-Vision. If I had Smell-O-Vision, you would be inhaling the aroma of reason right now. This smells like very dark fair trade coffee that has been lovingly brewed in a coffee press.
Tyson has been on The Daily Show with John Stewart a number of times and said he did a great deal of research prior to his first interview. He studied the rhythm of the show and calculated the average time before John Stewart interrupted. Tyson tailored his response to the first question (as Nye advocated) to match that (brief) time frame, thus facilitating Stewart’s joke on a complete thought rather than on a fragment. He parsed his information to match the venue. Here’s a clip from 2007. I noticed both the rhythm and the way Tyson used his hands to illustrate his points.
Both Nye and Tyson spend significant time advocating for scientific literacy, and I completely agree. In this age of slick pundits shouting sciencey-sounding opposite-truths, it’s difficult for people to tell fact from fiction. I think it’s up to all critical thinkers to marginalize willful ignorance and celebrate reason. If someone makes a testable claim and a large percentage of smart people doubt it, look it up for yourself. Find the primary sources and watch for conflicts of interest and other red flags. Especially if the claim resonates strongly with your own biases.