11/23/2011 - 15:23

Arrogance as a way of alienating

Something unfortunate has happened here. I liked and agreed with both of my colleagues' first-round essays (Roger Pielke on the importance of fairness and honesty; Robert Socolow on science not being "just another point of view"). But I'm afraid Socolow has overturned the table with his second essay, starting (and ending) with his title.

In today's digital, networked world, language is crucial. Entire political campaigns implode and careers end because of poorly chosen words. Sometimes the offense can be caused by a single word. For example, on the same day he filed to run for president in 2007, then-US Sen. Joe Biden created a media maelstrom by using the seemingly innocuous word "clean" in reference to African American candidate Barack Obama. Words are powerful: They can convey history and agendas, sometimes without the sources of the words realizing it.

The word "superior" in the title to Socolow's piece ("Relativism gets us nowhere. Science is a superior way of knowing.") has this characteristic. It speaks powerfully of one thing -- arrogance. To say that science is "a superior way of knowing" might seem innocuous to a fellow scientist. But try running that usage by the people at the Discovery Channel whom I mentioned in my last essay -- the people who feel the words "science" and "scientist" are elitist. You know what they would say to Socolow's title? "Yep, we told you so; they think they are superior."

I am talking perception here, not reality. If the general public perceives you to be arrogant, you can forget about being widely heard.

I first addressed the issue of arrogant scientists in my 2006 movie, Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus. Many evolutionist friends I spoke with during the making of the movie told of public debates in which they "out-facted" their creationist opponents. But when my friends looked to the audience, they saw cold stares that said, "Who do you think you are, Mr. Know-It-All?"

Hosted by Town Hall Seattle, a 2006 debate between an evolution professor and a spokesman for intelligent design vividly displayed the dynamic of scientific arrogance. The evolutionist trampled his opponent all night, cutting him off, telling him he was "full of crap," and eventually interrupting him by saying the word "no" 18 times in a row.

By the end of the evening, science grad students who attended told me, no one cared what the evolutionist had to say. He had come across as so arrogant -- radiated such an air of superiority -- that the audience was sick of him.

One organization that knows how not to come off as arrogant is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Over the past year, I've made four visits to its Atlanta headquarters and conducted five workshops there. The CDC seems to have a natural ability to communicate with broad audiences, perhaps because the word "public" is part of the name of the profession: "public health."

The CDC's brilliance was seen this year in the agency's zombie disaster preparedness campaign, which used a graphic novella, social media, and a blog to tell of the spread of a strange new disease that turns ordinary people into zombies. In the project, the CDC explained in hilarious deadpan the emergency kits and plans citizens should make to prepare for such a zombie apocalypse (and, it just so happened, more mundane emergencies like hurricanes, earthquakes, and real pandemics).

The project cost $87 to create and went viral on the Web, bringing the CDC and its preparedness mission the equivalent of millions of dollars in media exposure. When it comes to communication, the CDC understands the need to listen, to avoid arrogance, and to engage the audience on its own terms, even when the terms involve zombie movies.

In the end, this roundtable is supposed to focus on politicians who distort science. But at the core it's about reaching the public. If the distorted version of science comes from a charming, friendly, good old boy, while the accurate version of science comes from a cold and robotic authority figure who proclaims his way to be "superior," to whom do you think the public will listen?

I thought Socolow's first essay was excellent, and I completely agreed with its message. But the title of his second piece was a faux pas of enormous scale, undermining whatever substance was associated with it. If scientists can't develop a much higher level of sensitivity to the power of language -- and the importance of word choice -- it will not matter how absurdly the Rick Perrys of the world distort science. Far too often, they will be believed, and scientists will not.