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Netflix released a film called Don’t Look Up. The story employs tons of exaggeration in addressing how people resist bad news that affects their way of life, though it’s clearly referencing once issue specifically too heavy for this goofy blog. Instead, I want to focus on an aspect to the script that seems to be lost on many people.
As you may know, I have an undergraduate degree in Physics from the University of Maryland (Go Terps!), as well as a law degree from the Chicago-Kent College of Law (Go . . . Scarlet Hawks?). Both fields suffer from the same disease: We don’t know how to communicate well with non-experts. As issues become more complex, they become not only harder to grasp for the uninformed, but also, to be blunt, more boring. This renders the task of communication herculean.
Take for example my first and second RPG copyright posts, which addressed a specific topic. As I’ve explained, my analytics tell me that the first post received 18,952 hits to date (as of 12/30/2021). The second post? Only 1,158. The second post is 2/3 of the argument. That means that people read the first post and then 94% of them gave up (note: this is bad math), missing out on most of what I was trying to say. This was so even though the first post included a caveat that I was nowhere near finished with my argument.
Would it have been better for me to have made a shorter, easier-to-digest, and more direct argument? I don’t think so Despite my disclaimer at the end of the first post, I had a non-negligible number people viciously (i.e., with personal insults) criticizing my first post for making incomplete arguments. These were apologists of WotC (and perhaps RPGs in general) that just didn’t like the consequences of what I was saying, so they were going to criticize me anyway. Knowing that I wouldn’t be publishing the second post for a week, that gave them one week to discredit me. I’m not sure if it worked. Did people not read the second post because of a successful campaign to stop it, or did people just get bored? I suspect it’s far more the latter, but both are important phenomena for this discussion, and in other situations, the balance may be different. By the way, I reread the second post while writing this one, and even my eyes were glazing over.
This leads us to science. Scientists run into the same problem, but probably even worse because of the math inherent in their work. As a physics student, I studied areas of math that many people haven’t even heard of, and many of the issues scientists face today can only be understood in terms of math. Scientists try to simplify using analogies, but analogies by their nature will always be incomplete, giving each critic an opening to cast doubt on the science. (“How can a cat be simultaneously dead and alive? This guy’s a quack!”)
Politically connected scientists face additional pressure. Again, I don’t want to get caught up in politics here, so I’ll just say that many scientists depend on financing from politicians, and politicians need to keep their bases happy. When the truth is ugly, very few people want to hear it, and this cascades down to the scientists who must control the tone and content of their statements.
Scientists also face their own social inadequacies. I can’t speak to the modern generation, but going through the physics program, I can assure you that there wasn’t a lot of social skill on display. The stereotypes are valid. Nerds are generally not social butterflies. That makes it difficult for us to communicate even if we’re discussing the price of apples.
Don’t Look Up did a great job of showcasing this difficulty. Going back to attorneys, in legal writing we’re taught to start each paragraph or section with the conclusion, and then back it up with supporting arguments. The scientists in Don’t Look Up should have used that technique. Notice in the talk show scenes how long it took the scientists to make their point. They presented their supporting arguments first. Why? Because they knew some asshole was waiting in the wings to say, “That’s an assertion without an argument! He’s not backing it up!” Well, yeah, not yet. Let them finish. But by failing to start with the statement (spoiler alert!), “A planet-killing asteroid is coming to Earth in six months,” it gave the talk-show hosts the opportunity to interrupt and turn the interview into a farce. By the time the conclusion was stated, it made the scientists look like lunatics to the few people that were still paying attention.
Sometimes you need to lead with the conclusion, and sometimes you need to lead with the supporting material. It’s often difficult to tell those two situations apart, but when your audience is the entire world, maybe you should just get to the point.
Even this post was probably too long.