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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