Communication Is an Intersection

Seven Corners

“Communication Is a Two-Way Street” is a trite metaphor that, although useful at times, is an incomplete description of the reality of the process of communications.  Yes, there are senders and receivers in communications.  The senders can only control how they present messages.  They can’t control how messages are received. Only receivers can control their reception.

In intro psychology courses, many of us spent weeks trying to get a solid grasp of the subtle differences between sensation and perception.  Just as two people can experience (perceive) a temperature of 55° F as either warm or cool depending on their preconceptions and other environmental factors, two people can also hear or read my message and either decide that I am “right on” or that I am “not helping.”

I sincerely intend to attend someday a conference where all the cool kids congregate. If I had been at TAM8 in Vegas last weekend, I would have caught this speech that Phil Plait gave on being a dick when it comes to skepticism.  Stephanie was there and wrote about it.

That’s the closest thing I have to a conversion story I have. It’s also why I was a touch disappointed in Phil’s speech, although I appreciated most of it. He asked how many of us used to believe in woo, and he asked how many of us had been converted by people being angry and mean to us. He didn’t ask how many of us had been converted by someone being angry and mean on our behalf or on behalf of the ideals of skepticism.

I’d have raised my hand. High.

I have been wondering what has been learned lately in the blogosphere regarding the best methods to communicate skepticism and interest in science to the general public.  It still seems to me that with the You’re Not Helping self-immolation, the lesson learned was that people don’t like sock-puppets (and for good reason).  Or perhaps that Chris Mooney had better do a better job of checking on someone before vouching for him.

In most of the discussions related to accommodation of religion and science, most of the effort at discovery and focus has been placed on the methods of the message senders.  Who is right?  Who is wrong? Is it okay to be a jerk?  Are jerks making it more difficult for the non-jerks?  Josh Rosenau at Thoughts from Kansas even has a post that suggests that we can use science to determine the best way to get people to like science.  He even proposes a (lame) experiment:

Someone grounded in that body of research could develop some testable hypotheses about how folks might respond to NAs. Then you could do lab work, bringing in a large and representative sample of folks with views across the c/e spectrum. Do a pretest, then have some of them read a selection from Dawkins’ The God Delusion, others read from Ken Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God, and a control reading something unrelated to creationism and evolution and theism. Then do a post-test. Follow up a month later, and see how their views on science generally, evolution specifically, and on the relationship between science and religion have changed. Follow up a year later. What sticks, and what doesn’t? What do people remember? What do they convey to their friends? Then follow up the study with treatments that vary the extent of contact with New Atheist writings, to see whether people who read all of TGD, or watch a 2 hour talk by Dawkins, react differently than those with more fleeting contact with NA ideas.

The reason that I think that this idea is “lame” is because the concept doesn’t take into account the individual prejudices, the environments and the presuppositions that people bring into a reading of a book that looks at religion to determine that belief in God is the result of a delusion.  It’s a loaded experiment that I think would yield little.  A reading of either Miller’s book or Dawkins’ book is unlikely to find an audience of readers who were initially unbiased towards the concepts of religion and science.  Such an experiment wouldn’t be able to isolate the independent variables enough to create a sufficiently testable hypothesis.

More importantly, though, Josh makes the mistake of assuming that there is a “best” way to do all of this science communicating.  I don’t see how there can be one “best way” to turn an “Unscientific America” into a scientific America when there isn’t any single “America.”  There are 300 million Americans, and each of them have their own looking-glass selves. Communication doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  A message is by necessity interpreted by the receiver.  Communication is colored by the recipient’s background, history and environment.  Perception is a function of perspective.

Suppose the experiment were to be set up using the two books that Josh suggests; Finding Darwin’s God, by Kenneth Miller and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.  Suppose a sizable portion of the Miller readers were anti-Catholic and decided that his book is pure papist nonsense.  Would their non-acceptance be skewed by his catholicism?  How would the experimenter control for such an extraneous variable?  That is just one possible objection, and I am sure that social scientists can find more problems with the idea.

Humans are not psychic.  There is no direct communication available from my brain to yours.  We are limited in communications by the usage of symbols whether visual or audio.  We talk, we write, we listen, we read and use other means to indirectly communicate.  The indirect means we have to communicate are filtered through our perspectives.  We can’t control how other people filter.

Let’s try looking at it this way.  Is there an experiment that can show the “best” temperature to take a shower?  Would Josh be able to come up with a statistically valid sample to prove that 140°F is the “best” temperature and then expect that everyone take their showers at that temperature in order to get a consensus on clean?

Communication is not a two-way street.  It is an intersection.  Sometimes there are four corners and sometimes there are seven corners, and I think it unreasonable to expect that a left turn is always the correct course of action.  People who receive your directions and your communications have varying needs.  Stephanie needed someone to be angry at flim-flammers on her behalf, and Randi was there for her. Some people don’t need to hear that; some people just want discussion.  Some people just want the facts.  The trouble is the communicators don’t know what the receivers need. Most of the time we just know what we want to give. That’s just fine as long as we recognize that the message may vary and still have a desired effect.

So, be a dick or don’t be a dick.  Just don’t pretend to tell me that you know which size fits all.

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9 Responses to “Communication Is an Intersection”

  1. July 23rd, 2010 at 7:45 am

    CyberLizard says:

    “So, be a dick or don’t be a dick. Just don’t pretend to tell me that you know which size fits all.” That. Right there. That sums it all up. Why is that so hard for people to understand?

  2. July 23rd, 2010 at 10:37 am

    Glendon Mellow says:

    Excellent message, Mike.

    What amazes me is how we now live in an age when people can receive the message (whichever message) in more possible tones, nuances and levels of dickishness than ever before.

    I know from managing a diverse group of people in my day job, some need to see a written notice of a new policy, some need to hear me say it. I do both. I just need to help them understand.

    For the next Stephanie searching for a sneering Randi, they will have written content, offline and online, streaming videos, hundreds of tv channels, radio, podcasts, live lectures, school, and a vast social network of friends and correspondents online.

    The right message finding the right person has a lot of noise to get through, but authority controlling single, dominant messages is probably at an all-time low.

  3. July 23rd, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    I think that a lot of the noise has to do with competing media interests. I had tried to explain that to Mooney and Nesbit when they were in Minneapolis, but they were too set on their New Atheist Noise Machine kick.

    When American Idol is more popular than science, scapegoating atheists is not going to help.

  4. July 28th, 2010 at 11:30 am

    Glendon Mellow says:

    We need American Scidol.

  5. May 5th, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    Josh Rosenau says:

    You don’t need to factor out the pre-existing prejudices. You just need a sufficiently large, random sample such that you can average across different sorts of biases. If one wants to know how the (American) public responds to different styles of argument, you need a sample that includes the biases of typical Americans, after all, not an artificial sample in which certain groups are under-represented in search of this mythical unbiased person.

    My point with that experiment would not be to say that there’s only one way to do science outreach: I don’t believe that to be true. But experiments like that one can do a lot to reveal whether certain approaches are more effective than others, and with which populations. And that’s more valuable than all the hand-waving in the world.

  6. May 6th, 2011 at 5:07 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Then, in the meantime I don’t understand why you do so much handwaving about how much harm the New Atheists are doing. At this point it seems more like personal pique from you than it does seem like any sort of reasoned approach.

  7. May 6th, 2011 at 8:56 pm

    Josh Rosenau says:

    As I’ve noted elsewhere, what studies have been done all indicate that the “accommodationist” strategy is effective, and the NA strategy isn’t likely to be. Absent any empirical support for NA strategy, and given the empirical support for accommodationism, I don’t see why other folks are so opposed to accommodationism, and so anxious to push NAism as an alternative.

    I don’t think you’ll also find that my focus has not (at least not in the last couple years) been on the harm potentially done by others, as much as defending my own position and pressing those who oppose my position to make a robust, empirically sound case. I offered that experiment as a simple, cheap example of the sort of research that could help change my view.

  8. May 7th, 2011 at 3:42 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    The reason that you don’t know why they are so opposed to accommodationists is that you aren’t reading, or possibly not comprehending what they are writing.

    It is dishonest, for one, to tell people that it is a justifiable position philosophically to say that “maybe God had a hand in it all” when there is nothing show in evolution that there was a Creator.

    The largest reason is that the accommodationists spend more of their time telling New Atheists that they are wrong, that they shouldn’t be talking about the materialistic implications of science (and creationism is just a symptom.) Finally, the accommodationists are perpetuating a false meme that the New Atheists are vituperative (to use William Lane Craig’s phrase.)

    Have you read Greg’s piece on a multiplicity of strategies?

  9. May 7th, 2011 at 8:43 am

    Josh Rosenau says:

    I have read Greg’s piece, and responded at TfK.

    I think your penultimate paragraph is arguing that NAs are justified in attacking accommodationists to get people to stop saying they’re vituperative. I see an internal contradiction there. That said, I have no need to argue that NAs in general are vituperative (like all generalizations, sure to be false in some cases), but it’s surely the case that the gnu atheism espoused by Jerry Coyne and others (which may be a distinct subset of New Atheism) is certainly vituperative.

    To sustain your charge of dishonesty, it would have to be the case that unfalsifiable claims are false, and that’s a stretch. Unfalsifiable claims have a scientifically unknowable truth status, so it’s not obviously dishonest to say one could be philosophically justified in holding such a view. In any event, I do not personally hold that view, and do not personally find it philosophically justified. I just think it’s philosophically unjustified to treat unfalsifiable claims as absolutely false.

    In short, then, I’ve read and considered the anti-accommodationist arguments, and find them wanting in empirical and philosophical support.

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