20 August 2017

Persuasion (reprise)

A consequence of Einstein's theory of relativity is that we can no longer think of space and time as distinct:
“Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality.” — Herman Minkowski, 1908.
I more or less understand the reasoning behind this (if not the maths), but I admit that in terms of my experience it is completely counter-intuitive. So in fact, a century after Einstein, space by itself and time by itself have not faded into mere shadows. Maybe they have in the higher echelons of university physics departments, but not in general use.

And this is the thing about intuition and counter-intuitive ideas. For many people, evolution is simply counterintuitive. It feels wrong. So facts presented without values don't make much difference to how people *feel* about evolution. And how they feel about it determines how they think about it. This is simply a fact about how humans work.

The question then is not why ordinary people who find science counter-intuitive don't change their minds. Why would they? The question is why scientists are so bad at communicating? In fact, there is a well-developed science of persuasion, which we see at work in our daily lives across the media in advertising, promotions, political speeches and so on.

A single example will suffice. A century ago in the West, very few people were in debt. Since the 1970s this has changed so that now almost everyone is in debt. From credit cards to payday loans, we all seem to have forgotten the virtues of thrift, saving, and financial prudence. That we would borrow money rather than save up for something would have been considered counter-intuitive 100 years ago. If my great parents had talked about borrowing money at 30% APR while inflation was at 2%, just to buy something they wanted by did not absolutely need, their family and friends would have thought them mentally ill. Now it is just what everyone does.

I have no credit rating in the UK, having never borrowed money here, and I am still regularly sent credit card applications by major banks.

The counter-intuitive becomes intuitive and vice versa. Persuasion is rocket science, but it is science. It's about time that scientists cottoned on to this and stopped blaming other people for their failures to communicate.

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