“Global Wahhming What a Faaahhce!” Someone Help Scientists and Academics Communicate

This blog can also be found at Huffington Post


That is what I heard as I was training down the coast of my beloved New England on May 1. Responding to the ridiculously cold, miserable, stormy New England winter of 2014 that refuses to die even in May, a nice train conductor expressed himself in his thick Boston accent, with that distinctive Bostonian bluntness, combined with an endearing common sense. “Global waaaahhhming! What a faaaahce!”


What struck me about the conversation I overheard—and I write in trains and cafes deliberately to learn from people—is that all of his other blunt assessment of politics was very sensible and rather balanced, such as about taxes. I often meet New Englanders who seem like reincarnations of Tom Paine, Robert Frost, but with that thick accent that makes you ‘wondah whetheh they graduated high school, for God’s seyke’.


So why did we lose this man to bizarre myopia when 99% of scientists not being paid off by big oil have affirmed unnatural, dangerous and extremely global warming stemming from human activity? The answer is simple, scientists are terrible communicators. It takes all kinds of people to make the world a better place, and scientists are those quirky people with a genius for patience and dogged processes of discovery that upend previous thinking. But communication and persuasion is not their art. That belongs to lawyers and snake oil salesmen.


There are a few exceptions, Einstein was a great communicator, as was Carl Sagan. And no one will forget the amazing Richard Feynman explaining to the world why the ill-fated Space Shuttle Challenger could not survive space flight in low temperatures, by dunking the infamous O-rings into his glass of ice water, on television, and then breaking them like pretzels before millions of simple viewers, people with common sense, not owned by any corporation or election cycle.


But even these scientists could not easily translate the complex ideas of physics into their practical implications. They inspired us to be in awe of the universe, but it takes more than inspiration to go up against big oil, corrupt politicians and a wall of human inertia. It takes a fair amount of communicated common sense, and scaring the crap out of people in ways that are firmly rooted in reality.


But, seriously, sales is a time-honored skill that is the foundation of all ancient and modern trade and business. Most of us would be starving if there were not at least a few good salespeople in the family.


Who ever decided to sell a revolutionary scientific discovery, global warming, when they knew that most people would experience not warming, but extreme weather, floods, catastrophes, but not warming? Surely it was not anyone in marketing with half a brain. When you lose the Tom Paines of common sense in liberal New England, then you don’t stand a chance of evolving American culture. Don’t say something stupid and expect him to believe it.


(Just an amusing environmental aside. While writing this, I take my amazing Contigo thermos, which I carry everywhere to save on plastic and paper cups, I go up to the Amtrak café person and ask for some hot water. She says she can’t give it to me without putting it in a paper cup and charging me $2, because—drum role for the rationalization of insanity–the Food and Drug Administration won’t allow her to take my mug over her counter and fill it. Ok, so I am thinking, that there should be a carbon tax on every citizen of the planet, but a double tax on every stupid FDA bureaucrat who thinks he is making us healthier by destroying the planet.)


The bottom line is say something that makes sense to the public. “Your cahhh is killin the planet. So use a train or bus, or your freakin legs, if you don’t want your kids to live in Kevin Costner’s Wataah World.” “Get off your butt and fix up your bicycle and helmet. You can save yourself from diabetes and at the same time lower your flood insurance premiums”. And so on.


This goes for selling other critical areas of science, including social science, but for now, let’s just put everyone on notice: “If you want a planet run by common sense, then start communicating with common sense.”


© Marc Gopin