Communication Is an Intersection
“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.
This entry was posted on Thursday, July 22nd, 2010 at 6:45 pm and is filed under Mike Haubrich, Science. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.