Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Scienctists, Heads, and Hearts

I have been reading Randy Olson’s book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist. Randy produced the movie Flock of Dodos, which many of you have probably seen. In his new book, Randy points out the many ways in which popular perception is very different from the way scientists think. In particular, scientists believe in reaching conclusions by evidence and reasoning, while most people are more strongly influenced by emotions, gut feelings, and hidden (or not) sexual feelings. This doesn’t make them stupid. It just makes them human. The human brain evolved not just to solve problems but to create beauty, to tell stories, to win the affections of mates and the loyalty of comrades by making use of the emotional and intuitional centers of the brain.
(I saw a cartoon one time that contrasted the way scientists think with the way “normal people” think. A man presses a button and gets zapped by lightning. The normal person says, “I guess I’d better not do that anymore.” The scientist says, “I wonder if that happens every time I press the button.” The point is that scientists really think differently than most other people.)

I think Randy’s approach makes a lot more sense than the still-quoted “two cultures” of C. P. Snow. Of those two cultures, science still has a lot of people, but Snow’s humanist and artistic culture is not a major force in the world today. I’m not even sure how insightful Snow was at the time he wrote it. (By the way, I didn’t like C. P. Snow’s novels either.) Instead, popular culture depends on quick impressions, sound bites (bytes), and emotion. Popular culture was not swayed by the evidence that smoking is a deadly habit, but once this evidence had been around for awhile and entered popular experience, there was a watershed change in popular culture and smoking is no longer considered cool to most people.

Reading Randy’s book helped me understand some things. For example, my book Green Planet (released in early 2009) has been well reviewed and deals with one of the most important things in the world. I present eight arguments, each with its own chapter, about how plants keep the Earth alive and how we need to protect them so they can continue to do so. This book is my botanist Gospel Tract that I could hand to anyone who asks, “Of what use are trees?” Why have its sales been modest? Of course I blame the recession. But I now realize that I was presenting a reasoned argument, rather than an emotional appeal. I wrote emotionally and informally, but still structured my book more around an appeal to the head more than the heart. (But hey, it’s still a good book—see my author website.)

If scientists want to reach people, they have to reach their emotions, not just their minds. But does this means that scientists have to be evangelists, or even comics, in addition to being scientists? Scientists do not receive such training. I invite your comments, and invite you to look for installment two on this topic.

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