Sunday, May 25, 2008

Asymmetrical Communications Challenges

Which would you rather be: the parent who has to tell a child that you brought cookies, or the one who has to break the news that her puppy was run over? Hold that thought.

Creationism's communicative task and rules of engagement: tell a crowd-pleasing, values-resonant, tradition-rich, intuitive story that begins with some theatrics in a lovely garden, gets diverted by a talking snake, course-corrects with the help of a prophet or three, and ends with the believer seated at the right hand of god playing a harp on a cloud, all the loved and lost restored, every answer provided, eternal peace assured. For the saved, there will be ping pong tables, all the latest in home theater and energy-efficient appliances, persisting youthful vitality, and truckloads of horny virgins. Since the natural world is just a dilapidated, impermanent, grimy, nematode-riddled antechamber to the Great Heavenly Hall of Salvation, its details are unimportant; but insofar as scientists, philosophers, and assorted eggheads press the point and insist on arguing about it, go ahead and lie. God will know you were lying in the service of saving souls (and even if you were lying just because you're a complete asshole, don't worry because he's all about forgiveness in any case).

Evolution's communicative task and rules of engagement: present the science truthfully. The science isn't intuitive past the first few pages of the introductory chapters, and while it is intellectually satisfying, elegant, and even beautiful in its way, it is never comforting or heartwarming.

Does anyone else see an asymmetry here?

I think everyone who hectors the scientific community over how they communicate with the public on evolution (I refer to these and those among others) needs to start with the reality of this asymmetry firmly in mind. This is not a 50-50 proposition that just requires a few kind kindly nudges and well-chosen placements of emphasis.

The message about the cookies is always going to go over better than the message about the puppy. This is not an excuse to be careless about the approach to communicating, but an acknowledgement and clarification of the challenge as it actually exists.

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