Seriously. I’m not joking here. If you were to bring in a communications consultant for your broad public outreach efforts, who would you choose — Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, who was the keynote speaker of the National Academy of Sciences “The Science of Science Communication” conference two weeks ago, or South Park co-creator and co-writer of the hit play, “The Book of Mormon“? One can tell you how to communicate but really doesn’t have any credentials to show he is capable of reaching the public. The other can also tell you how to communicate and has staggering ability to tell great stories and quantitative proof to show how well he knows how to reach the public by the tens of millions. And yet, which do you think a group of scientists would be far, far, far more comfortable listening to? Scientists tend to spurn religion, yet talk about bringing in the preacher to preach to the converted (even though he didn’t in the end!)Kahneman’s (left) is the one who talks about System 1 and System 2. Here you have it personified. He’s System 2, Trey Parker (right) is System 1. Who you gonna call?
KAHNEMAN POOPS ON THE NATIONAL ACADEMY’S GREAT SCIENCE COMMUNICATION CONFERENCE
It’s a conundrum and it ain’t that new. I spent the weekend slowly, meticulously, thoughtfully reading Oscar Wilde’s classic and only novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” He wrote it in 1890. His father was a prominent surgeon and he was the most celebrated playwright of his day. Clearly he had the split brain — half thinking, half feeling — more so than most. And it pervades his every word in Dorian Gray. Here’s a great quote:
aaaaa“I wonder who it was defined man as a rational animal. It was the most premature definition ever given. Man is many things, but he is not rational. I am glad he is not.” – Oscar Wilde, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1890)
That was 120 years ago. Now compare that with with this quote from Daniel Kahneman near the end of his talk just two weeks ago which Andy Revkin posted here.
aaaaa“Because of emotional coherence, the source of the message is extremely important, the source has to be liked, and the source has to be trusted, and if the scientific establishment is not trusted, then the amount of evidence really is going to have very little purchase on what is going to happen.” – Daniel Kahneman (2012)
He’s talking about “likeability” which by definition is not rational. He’s saying man is not a rational animal. He’s reiterating Oscar Wilde, just in more technical language. Nuttin’s changed.
RIGHT SPEAKER, WRONG CONCLUSION?
So I’m guessing the organizers of the N.A.S. conference, given their title of, “The Science of Science Communication,” were hoping that Kahneman would play to the “scientism” precepts (the idea that EVERYTHING has ultimately an underlying science which if we can just work hard enough to discover we can solve all the problems of the world through science) and deliver the big statement of: “Just keep going with all the science of science communication you can manage!”
But to the contrary, he pretty much just echoed Oscar Wilde — man is not a rational animal. He just put it into more technical language of his Systems 1 and 2. In the end, same deal. Same as my boring book. Come down out of your head. It’s the ONLY hope for the science world. Enough with the misguided motto of, “Make Science Sexy.” Sorry, wrong message. The correct message for today — which is EXACTLY Kahneman’s message — is “Make Science Human.” Which means yes, emotion and humor, but it ALSO means INTUITION.
And yet, the title of one of the major talks at the NAS conference was about getting RID of intuition. Did it occur to anyone present that Kahneman’s entire thesis was 100% opposite of that title?
What a mess. When eggheads collide.
And if you want the definitive proof of how entirely misguided the whole science communication world is, just look at this new Gallup Poll that came out on Friday about attitudes towards evolution in the U.S. It shows that over the course more than 30 years, despite all the public programs and books shouting, “EVOLUTION IS A FACT” the change in public attitude is … pretty much nothing.
NUTTIN’S CHANGED. How strange is that? Since 1982, despite all the public programs promoting evolution as “a fact” in America, the numbers are pretty much the same, with only about 15% of the public buying the academic, secular version of evolution. Apparently someone needs to shout EVOLUTION IS A FACT even louder.
DON’T LECTURE US, JUST SHOW US HOW ITS DONE … PLEASE
I found Kahneman’s talk pretty dry, and I couldn’t make it through much of his book (he’s no Malcolm Gladwell unfortunately), but it’s great that his talk in the end did deliver a solid, simple message — science has to figure out how to be human. In film school the most fundamental principle they taught us was, “Don’t TELL us, SHOW us.” And that’s the limit of Kahneman’s message. He’s got the telling part down, but unfortunately he can’t show us what he means.
That falls to people like Trey Parker and that’s who the science world should be calling on to hear a talk that won’t be preaching to the converted. If they have the guts for it.