Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Being Nice

This is the third and final blog entry about Randy Olson’s book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist. Randy’s final point is that, when we tell people (especially audiences) about evolution, we need to be nice. Communication experts have repeatedly shown that audiences and voters are attracted to the person who seems nicer. Consider when an Intelligent Design advocate appeals to the fairness of “letting both sides be heard, it’s the American way.” Never mind the fact that one of those sides was artificially manufactured by the Intelligent Design people. It appeals to people. If an evolutionary scientist responds in anger or even slight impatience, many people will tune the scientist out.

I am afraid that this is true, based on my own experience. I have been successful at reaching my students sometimes, and sometimes not. The successes were (as I wrote before) when I presented Darwin as a human being. It was this approach that made a success out of an event almost guaranteed to fail—Charles Darwin showing up in person for a question/answer session, open to students and the public, in rural Oklahoma.

But one thing leaves me confused. If niceness is so important, how can we explain the phenomenal appeal of some of the meanest people you could ever imagine? One example is Rush Limbaugh. He openly insults anyone who disagrees with him. His followers love it. His followers remain faithful despite flagrant hypocrisy, such as when he denounces drug abuse, not unlike his own addiction to oxycontin. But, you will notice, Limbaugh does not insult his followers (“dittoheads” is considered a compliment, not an insult). Limbaugh, like limburger cheese, repels most people, but rewards some. This same explanation, however, fails to work (in my opinion) for Ann Coulter. Is there anything she has said that is not with a snarl and a tincture of anger? What is her problem? Even her admirers think of her as a witch in a black dress.

So perhaps niceness (to the audience or readership in general) is not so important after all to the conservative culture in America. But, do scientists have much chance of reaching and teaching these people anyway? Perhaps our audience (for you evolutionary scientists and non-scientists) is the nice part of American culture, who can only be reached by niceness. With any luck, the nice part of our culture is a little larger than the mean part. That’s our only reasonable target.

I recommend Randy Olson’s “Don’t Be Such a Scientist.” It will give you some things to think about.

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