Sep 04 2012

Bill Nye and Science vs Business Communication

Bill Nye recently produced a video as part of the Big Think series on YouTube, this one arguing that creationism is not appropriate for children. The video has sparked some debate, but not just about evolution and creationism – more so about tone and strategy. What is the purpose of the video, and is it successful?

One of the interesting corners of this discussion is two articles on Scientific American taking two very different views of the video. The first is an interview with Patrick Donadio, “a professional speaker and a communications coach to the leaders of Fortune 500 companies.” The second is essentially a rebuttal by Kyle Hill, which takes a more scientific view. Naturally, I related better to the second article.

Hill points out that there is actually some published evidence on communication that might inform this discussion – something missing from Donadio’s interview. I have had some experience with corporate-style communications “experts” and I have had the same reaction as Hill appears to gently be stating – that there is a culture of corporate speaking and self-styled experts that is not exactly compatible with scientific communication.

Donadio states, for example:

“It is my belief that you can’t change someone’s opinion by trying to force—push—them to change.”

There are four points to address from this brief statement. The first is that Donadio is stating his belief – not synthesizing what the evidence says (as Hill does). Second he is essentially making up his own terminology – his use of “push” vs “pull”. Third is the claim itself, that you cannot change someone’s mind by challenging them directly. And fourth there is the assumption that the purpose of the video is to directly change the opinion of creationists.

Hill points out that the research shows that directly challenging someone’s fixed belief is, in fact, a good way to motivate them to search more deeply into the topic (what Donadio refers to as “pulling” them into the topic). It also shows, however, that motivated reasoning will likely result in this search for new information actually strengthening their prior belief. Perhaps, however, there is a minority of those who are receiving the message who are able to change, and the kick-in-the-pants of a challenge may be the trigger that gets them examine and change their beliefs.

I have my own completely unscientific anecdotal information on this issue. I have been producing a podcast for over 7 years and receive dozens of e-mail daily from listeners. I have received many e-mails from listeners (and had conversations with listeners) who started listening to my podcast, the SGU, as creationists or believers of some kind. Some even started listening just to learn what the “other side” is saying so they could be better at debating us.

There is a common theme to the stories they tell – a slow conversion to scientific skepticism one issue at a time. First they learn critical thinking skills by applying them to issues about which they already agree or have no strong opinions. Later (sometimes after years) a light-bulb goes off and they realize they need to apply those same critical thinking skills to their own core beliefs. These two things (critical thinking and an unscientific belief system) were coexisting compartmentalized inside their heads, until it was no longer sustainable and they had to resolve the disconnect.

Of course, I am hearing from those who eventually took the path to scientific skepticism, rejecting creationism or some other belief system and fully embracing the scientific world-view. It is a self-selective and uncontrolled sample. They can serve as “case reports,” however, which at least indicate that the pathway exists. It is possible for people to convert from true-believer to skeptic.

There is another theme that emerges in their stories, however, and that is that in some way they were ready to explore. They wanted to really understand what the other side had to say. Some have told me that in retrospect they always had a generally skeptical outlook, but just carved out an exception for the religious faith of their culture.

Getting back to the Nye video and Donadio’s critique – Donadio’s opinion is at variance with the evidence. Being challenged can pull you in to exploration. Further, that exploration can, at least in some cases, lead to a conversion.

Donadio goes on to point out that conversion is not an event, but a process. This is the conventional wisdom, and I agree, but there is nothing in Nye’s video that suggests he thinks he can convert someone with a single interaction, let alone a two and a half minute video on YouTube. I don’t know what Nye intended with the video, but I suspect he did not think he was making an iron-clad case for evolution, nor converting many creationists. What he was doing was adding to the chorus of scientists and science advocates stating, in straightforward terms, that creationism is not science and it’s harmful to our society and our future.

The video has (as of this writing) 3.8 million views, and has sparked a lot of discussion. So in that sense it was successful. I doubt it will have any measurable effect all by itself. Creationism is a deeply culturally embedded belief and that contains a great deal of momentum. Pushing back against creationism is a generational project. Nye is simply piling one more brick onto that massive wall.

I did find Donadio’s interview very revealing in terms of the style of corporate speakers. Hill characterized it this way:

“The business-like language here seems robotic and insincere, especially considering the candid nature of the video.”

I too find corporate speakers to be robotic and insincere. They tend to have a very salesman-like personality that rubs me the wrong way. Their speech is peppered with pseudo-jargon that gives the impression they have a body of specific knowledge, but when you scratch you find that it’s mostly personal experience and opinion. I find there is some good common sense in there, but it’s smothered in superficial easy answers and even pseudoscience. I find it similar to the self-help industry – largely self- promotional and evidence-free.

The bottom line is that science communication is not corporate communication. I admit my flagrant bias here, but I suspect that corporate communication has more to learn from good science communicators, like Nye, than the other way around.

This is also a culture clash. I respond better to good science communication and my eyes glaze over when facing slick and insincere corporate-speech. I acknowledge, however, that this may not be true for everyone, and in fact may be reversed for many people. I also suspect, however, that this is just as important a culture clash (science vs sales) as that between a science-based world view and a faith-based world view. The self-help, corporate speech, motivational speaker industry is just as unscientific (and often anti-intellectual) as many belief systems. They are also more insidious, and perhaps more far reaching as they broadly affect both corporate and the education culture.

 

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20 responses so far

20 Responses to “Bill Nye and Science vs Business Communication”

  1. BillyJoe7on 04 Sep 2012 at 9:00 am

    “research shows that directly challenging someone’s fixed belief is, in fact, a good way to motivate them to search more deeply into the topic ”

    It is what worked for me.
    Up until the age of about sixteen, I was never exposed to any view other than that Catholicism is the one true religion and that its god is the one true god. I was one year off going to a seminary to fulfill my father’s wishes and become a catholic priest.
    (I also spent every Saturday morning for about a year trying to levitate off my bed, convinced that this was really possible.)
    It was confrontation by those with opposing views that gradually eroded my belief system.
    (The gentle approach never had any effect, essentially leaving me free to continue believing)

  2. Phil Smithon 04 Sep 2012 at 10:34 am

    While I’m certainly no fan of corporate speech, and I haven’t read Donadio’s article, I can relate to some extent to the quoted sections from Donaldio’s interview.

    I enjoy arguing (I’m a lawyer and so I do it professionally), and I consider myself both a skeptic and scientifically minded.

    Anecdotally (and there is common sense to this), I have always observed that challenging someone’s world view too strongly is not a good way to change that person’s world view.

    I’m not surprised by the evidence quoted by Hill: that challenging someone’s view will motivate them to search more deeply into the topic. Nor am I surprised that the common result of such a search is only to have them dig themselves in deeper to their previously held belief.

    I’ll make a couple clarifications/caveats to what I stated above.

    Firstly, I believe that challenging someone’s world view is necessary for scientific honesty; just not doing so ‘too strongly’. What I mean by that is this: you can be scientifically honest and respectful at the same time. I’m not thinking of Bill Nye when I make this comment; I’m thinking more of Hitchens or Dawkins. While I truly enjoy the writings of these two intellectuals, I can’t imagine they’ve converted too many believers. I find they come off far too strong (for example, while I am an atheist, I don’t believe religion is responsible for all the world’s ills, nor to I think every religious believer is a mindless idiot). There is a respectful (and scientifically honest) way to have this conversation, and I find the respectful approach is far more effective at conversion.

    Second caveat, perhaps the aim isn’t to covert at all. If so, then go right ahead and beat people over their head with their beliefs. Again taking the example of Hitchens or Dawkins; the very strong/harsh language they use (although certainly not the approach I prefer), was very effective at both rallying the converted, and gaining media attention. Just because you’re arguing with someone, doesn’t always mean your arguing to them (sometimes there is a wider audience, or a Judge).

    Now finally, turning to Bill Nye’s video: I actually find it to be quite respectful in its language. I wouldn’t have included the word “crazy” when describing the creationist world view (I note Nye appears to catch himself after saying “crazy” and seems to want to replace it with ‘untenable’ or ‘inconsistent’, but as this was a video, he could have actually edited it out), but in general Nye (and Sagan before him) has always been a class act when arguing/explaining scientific knowledge.

  3. dregstudioson 04 Sep 2012 at 5:56 pm

    Here in TN, they have taken steps though new legislation to allow creationism back into the classroom. This law turns the clock back nearly 100 years here in the seemingly unprogressive South and is simply embarrassing. There is no argument against the Theory of Evolution other than that of religious doctrine. The Monkey Law only opens the door for fanatic Christianity to creep its way back into our classrooms. You can see my visual response as a Tennessean to this absurd law on my artist’s blog at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2012/04/pulpit-in-classroom-biblical-agenda-in.html with some evolutionary art and a little bit of simple logic.

  4. ConspicuousCarlon 04 Sep 2012 at 10:06 pm

    My problem with Donadio’s advice is not the style of the language. The problem is that this suggestion…

    “Scientific recent research shows us that we have evolved.
    I encourage you to explore this concept deeper. When you’re
    talking with your kids, I encourage you to allow them to
    discuss the issue with you and have a healthy dialogue.”

    …isn’t just a change in style. Donadio is actually suggesting that Nye change his position. Yes, it would be easier if the scientific position were merely that kids should hear about evolution, but Nye’s position, and the most logical position to take in light of scientific knowledge, is that creationism should not be taught to children. Donadio is suggesting that we back up and merely ask that parents allow their kids to ask about evolution. Thanks, but we’ve already been there 100 years ago.

    There is also this assumption that Bill Nye should never say anything which is not some strategically-crafted negotiation instrument. Well, fuck you. Maybe we believe that our position should be stated honestly at least once, not hidden away as some secret agenda.

  5. ConspicuousCarlon 04 Sep 2012 at 10:56 pm

    In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have included the FU in the post which currently can’t be seen, but Donadio failed to convert me to his gentle (or is it gentile?) point of view.

  6. ccbowerson 04 Sep 2012 at 11:45 pm

    “This is also a culture clash. I respond better to good science communication and my eyes glaze over when facing slick and insincere corporate-speech. I acknowledge, however, that this may not be true for everyone, and in fact may be reversed for many people.”

    I often wonder how much we are in the minority in this regard. The fluff-filled jargon and meaningless cliches causes me to shift my attention to anything else

  7. ccbowerson 04 Sep 2012 at 11:56 pm

    “It was confrontation by those with opposing views that gradually eroded my belief system.”

    I’m am certain that is true of many people, and others may have the opposite response. I have become more and more convinced that it takes a wide variety of approaches as people respond differently based upon many factors including their openness to new ideas, how much they like confrontation, their life experiences, etc.

  8. cremnomaniacon 05 Sep 2012 at 1:29 am

    “a professional speaker and a communications coach to the leaders of Fortune 500 companies.”

    As soon as I read this my I was put off. It was mentioned to a degree in the your blog, “Their speech is peppered with pseudo-jargon… when you scratch you find that it’s mostly personal experience and opinion. ”
    It’s far worse than that.
    Of late, I have run into so many individuals that call themselves coaches it’s sickening. “Travel coach”, “resume coach”, “goal directed, success driven, results coach”, etc. Those aren’t fabricated by the way.
    One thing these people all have in common is they seem to all come from business backgrounds. They love to co-opt science and and twist it around so it appears to suppor their voo-doo. Like the recent “core values index” I took for amusement. No construct validity to be found. They just like Maslow & Erikson, which I’ve found are popular in the corporate world.

    It’s unfortunate that Sci Am chose to allow a snake oil salesmen an opportunity to spew non-scientific garb on their site. I’ve met too many Donadios to believe they have anything very useful to offer.

    Patrick Donadio, MBA, CSP (Certified Speaking Professional), MCC (Master Certified Coach) is a classic (joke). Don’t you love the letters after the name? What was Sci Am thinking? I wouldn’t have lent any credibility to anything he said with a rebuttal. These coaches are charlatans, pseudo psychologists, and mystics, but never scientific unless it suits their purpose.

  9. BillyJoe7on 05 Sep 2012 at 7:45 am

    ” I have become more and more convinced that it takes a wide variety of approaches as people respond differently based upon many factors including their openness to new ideas, how much they like confrontation, their life experiences, etc.”

    I couldn’t agree more.
    It is the reason I reject Massimo Pigliucci’s criticism of those who do things differently from him and his appeal for them to do as he does. We do need a variety of approaches using the different skills of different sceptics to match the widely different characteristics of the audience.

  10. jo5efon 05 Sep 2012 at 8:55 am

    Well I somewhat disagree with what seems to be the consensus here. While it is true that business communications can be prone to jargon and insincere, many scientists have very poor communication skills in my experience. Although I liked Nye’s talk it did come off as a bit patronizing and Donaldino makes some good points that are worth considering. His push pull analogy can hardly be called jargon, it seems clear and reasonable. Ironically one of the reasons Steve is pretty much my favorite skeptical blogger is his reasonable, considered approach which is not as confrontational as others. More pull than push you could say.

  11. Bronze Dogon 05 Sep 2012 at 1:47 pm

    One more vote for a variety of approaches. I tend to favor a bit of edge because that’s one thing that helped me along the road to skepticism, though I’ve made some effort to go for a gentle but firm stoicism in some cases. If you think you can make an effective argument while remaining polite and amiable, go for it. Different people have different strengths and different sensitivities. Sometimes I’m straw manned by tone trolls who claim I think insults are the one true method of argument when what I’m really against is crippling overspecialization in politeness.

  12. ccbowerson 05 Sep 2012 at 5:50 pm

    “It is the reason I reject Massimo Pigliucci’s criticism of those who do things differently from him and his appeal for them to do as he does. We do need a variety of approaches using the different skills of different sceptics to match the widely different characteristics of the audience.”

    I think where is disagree is that I don’t think Massimo is making this point exactly (perhaps that is his motivation, but I am not going to speculate there). Although he has implied that an aggressive style has become too common (not that it has no place), his main point seems to be that there also seems to be aspects to the skeptical movement which are lacking in skepticism. I don’t disagree, and I think it is very important for a group to be self critical in order to ensure that these issues are discussed and that there is growth and maturity on such topics. Of course just because a person identifies as a skeptic (and may even be a big name in the community) does not mean that that person is skeptical in all respects. Being part of such a community means that there are others there to point out when you are (or may be) wrong.

  13. Cytoon 06 Sep 2012 at 10:36 am

    As is common in these types of disagreements, these folks are talking past each other. Donadio’s point can be distilled down to “you have to talk to people in a way that they can hear you.

    As a science-minded person with a background in molecular biology, I’ve seen this first hand in the corporate world. There have been many times when I made patient, fact-filled arguments for my position in high level meetings only to have half the room miss everything, probably thinking I was an idiot as a kicker. It was very frustrating to watch the company waste time and money as I quietly worked for weeks to bring people together around a project that should have been a no-brainer from the start.

    One of our sales executives explained it to me very succinctly. The CEO and I were discussing a marketing strategy that revolved around communicating the facts about why our products were better. We said “If I was buying this, that’s what I’d want to know!”

    The sales executive stopped us right there: “You just don’t get it. You are not ‘most people’!” In the same vein, the people who read skeptic blogs are in no way “most people”. Although we can be susceptible to sales-speak, we are far more likely to prefer technical specs and real world data. Direct appeals to emotion are less effective for us.

    Not so the average Joe. Particularly Joe the Baptist who says “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!” No, that 85% of the population is turned off by fact-based argument. They live in a world of emotional appeal. Don’t believe me? Watch any TV advertisement. Watch any political commercial – or the conventions. They have nothing in common with the reasoned argument approach favored by skeptics. (Bonus points if you recognize that it isn’t just “the other political party” that is nothing but a bunch of empty talking points)

    Why? Because that’s how most people learn. Not by having somebody say “you are wrong, and it is dangerous to your kids for you to be wrong!” I mean, really…. how many atheists have been swayed by that argument? “You can choose not to believe in God if you want, but let us educate your kids to believe in God because it is better for society!” Yeah, that’ll sell…. Why the hell do you think it would work in the reverse?

  14. BillyJoe7on 06 Sep 2012 at 5:29 pm

    jo5ef,

    “Ironically one of the reasons Steve is pretty much my favorite skeptical blogger is his reasonable, considered approach which is not as confrontational as others. ”

    Now read his most recent article on the Shuzi Magic Power Braceletand and see if you don’t think he can be just as scathing when the situation demands it.

  15. BillyJoe7on 06 Sep 2012 at 5:32 pm

    ccbowers,

    ” his main point seems to be that there also seems to be aspects to the skeptical movement which are lacking in skepticism”

    Like his own lack of scepticism regarding free will?
    …especially when he accuses those opposing him as holding unsceptical views on free will. :|

  16. Mlemaon 06 Sep 2012 at 7:15 pm

    BillyJoe, you may not have free will, but I do.

  17. ccbowerson 06 Sep 2012 at 11:22 pm

    “Like his own lack of scepticism regarding free will?
    …especially when he accuses those opposing him as holding unsceptical views on free will.”

    I don’t think that his view is”unskeptical.” Free will is a topic I rarely get into, because people tend to be opinionated yet don’t know what they are talking about. I find Massimo’s take on it nuanced and informed yet still unsatisfactory. Perhaps its because I’ve yet to hear a coherent definition of the term.

  18. Mlemaon 07 Sep 2012 at 12:43 am

    BillyJoe, you should read the Discover article Johann linked to. It’s about some research being done into quantum physics that would support pre-determinism: no free will!

    http://discovermagazine.com/2010/apr/01-back-from-the-future/article_view?b_start:int=0&-C=”

  19. PharmD28on 10 Sep 2012 at 4:15 pm

    I have a friend/co-worker who described his conversion from creationist in a very evangelical household growing up.

    His conversion was over some time in which he was arguing on the net with folks arguing for evolution. The people that got nasty with him would generally provide some good evidence, then basically kick him in the balls (using words). He said this really pissed him off, but he said it did challenge him.

    Eventually he met within these conversations someone that took more time to calmly explain any questions he had without judgement…

    So it seems to me that in this “conversion process” – the problem with such critiques of approach is that they are trying to force a dichotomy?

    Perhaps for some a “kick in the pants” will not be what is needed or helpful…but perhaps for others it will be.

    And of course a video that is “tough” can rally the troops and get them talking about the topic more in society and having either calm debate or terse/snarky debate…either way its stimulating discussion.

    Just some thoughts….

  20. PharmD28on 10 Sep 2012 at 4:30 pm

    for me, the final thing that got rid of any skepticism regarding evolution was a conversation with a friend of a friend that scoffed after I presented the point and he gave a very confident set of points for which I was left only to say “well, thats a good point”….then I went on to read more and that was it for me….of course I was never staunchly a creationist…but again, ive talked to people, and can at least say anecdotally that folks are indeed successfully “kicked in the pants” as a part of their conversion….and it would appear based on this post that research supports this premise as well…makes sense.

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