The difference between "being right" and "being persuasive"


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Thanks for this, it was really timely.

This sounds very much like an explanation of why metaphors are often helpful in understanding something, particularly if what the metaphor is trying to explain is something abstract or large and complicated. I’ve joked that the only really true metaphor in English poetry is “a rose is a rose is a rose”, but it makes sense that the sort of mental substitution that is a metaphor can help make difficult concepts easier to grasp.

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“Let the data speak for themselves” has always been a con trick. Are you going to show us all of the data (every possible measurable fact about the entire universe)? No, we’re going to see a subset. And so we must ask: what filter did you use? And why did you think that was the right filter?


why sacrificing a little accuracy for the sake of understanding is a better idea than it sounds.

I didn’t take it as sacrificing accuracy as much as just being more succinct, simplified and tactful while also incorporating more layman terms, etc. Also to avoid confusing people (on purpose or otherwise) with overly complex charts. Shit, but I’m probably just focusing too much on semantics, though.

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A few years ago the main debate in science communication was about “framing” and this seems to be the same thing over again with the same arguments on each side “If you explain too much to the public they’ll just zone out” on the “being persuasive” side and the “what’s the point of talking to the public if you are just going to give them an oversimplified to the point of being incorrect description?” on the other.

People in business have known about this problem for centuries - it’s called marketing, or maybe public relations. Scientists are terrible at it. In an ideal world, somebody with a big breakthrough could call up a communicator to get the word out to the poets and bakers - somebody like a science journalist. Those people are so much fun to read, but they can’t really be everywhere at once.


Isn’t this the job of a synthesist? Someone like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Cox, and Carl Sagan? People who understand the science, can expain it well to a lay audience, and more importantly, get their audience excited about these topics so that they’ll want to discover the science more in depth for themselves. We can always use more popularizers and synthesists.

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Or you could take it further and just lie and then begin a successful career as a news analyst on TV.

I do not know this word. I have always thought of those fellows as scientists, although they sure are skilled communicators.

Truth be told I’ve only ever seen this use of the word synthesist used in science fiction. By a few authors, and it’s about half and half used either as a way of translating technical ideas to the reader, and/or as a way to ensure the narrator’s survival as he usually isn’t a specialist in any field, so he doesn’t stick his nose too deep in the muck. Then he can use his shallow knowledge of many fields to synthesize an escape plan.

In some cases a synthesist is an observer who mediates between scientists and the public, in other cases he is a jack of all trades for the crew.

The specific example I’m using comes from the story Blindsight, by Peter Watts

Well, if they can’t have the title…can I use it on my business card? :slight_smile:

Yes…but you are very clear. :slight_smile:

What you say depends a lot on who you say it to. I’m not a scientist but as a citizen I need to make decisions about policy so I can vote for candidates who consult science and use reason to make decisions.

You could pump all the data you want at me and I’d have to break for lunch, or my family or my business- I’m comfortable knowing the data is there and I’m trusting scientists to have the best understanding of the issue at hand. I do expect comprehensible explanations that not only tell me what I need to know about an issue but also help me to see the bigger scientific picture and how it impacts my life.

Why should scientists be concerned with communicating effectively to non-scientists? Because we all need to make very important decisions based on the best available understanding. Unfortunately, Neil DeGrasse-Tysons are rare jewels and because scientists don’t, as a group, make it part of their duties to communicate with the rest of us, you end up with what we have now: kids graduating high school not only without critical thinking skills but not a clue what they are or why they need them.

Informed citizens can elect people who understand and are likely to fund research instead of the anti-science right wing nut jobs who are intentionally de-funding it and intentionally dumbing down the citizenry.

I dunno, do you have a degree in synaesthesia?

That’s a lovely flavor of blue…

From the article …

It’s incredibly important to think about how we phrase our
understanding of the world, as well as how we can make our ideas more
relevant, interesting, and clear to the public. Don’t believe me?
Just ask the climate scientists

It’s definitely true, and I enjoyed the article. I would even take this all one step further and suggest that there remains much that could be done to make science more understandable to laypeople. We’ve really not even begun to explore the possibilities, to be honest.

However, in the case of the climate models, it’s wrong to cast the lack of consensus entirely upon how the message is crafted. We hear this stated repeatedly in the media, but it’s not at all impossible to find nuanced scientific arguments against manmade global warming. In fact, it’s not even hard to find people at NASA that aren’t all that impressed by James Hansen.

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