Being an educator is not only getting the truth right, but there’s got to be an act of persuasion there as well. Persuasion isn’t always, “Here are the facts — you’re an idiot or you are not,” but, “Here are the facts and here is a sensitivity to your state of mind,” and it’s the facts plus the sensitivity, which convolved together, create impact. — Neil deGrasse Tyson to Richard Dawkins, 2006
You’re a busy person. But Phil Plait needs 31 minutes of your time.
Phil (of Bad Astronomy) gave a talk at TAM8 in July that is one of the most important and resonant messages I’ve heard in ages. It’s about being heard.
It’s an obsession of mine lately, this topic. I tried to write a simple blog post about it last year and ended up instead writing 11,000 words in an eight-month series of posts called “Can You Hear Me Now?” The thrust of that series, and of Phil’s talk, is that content is all well and good, and argument is lovely, but it’s all for nothing if we don’t think about how to get ourselves heard. And when it matters most, we’d better think not just about how tight our arguments are, but how to stand any chance of having them received on the other end.
This isn’t just about religion. It’s also about politics, social issues, alternative medicine, the paranormal — everything people get hot and bothered about. Discourse is nothing more than shouting down a well if we merely compose zingers for the applause of our stablemates and fail to create a receptive mind in the listeners we hope to persuade.
Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke to this in a rebuke to Richard Dawkins at Beyond Belief in 2006 (which Dawkins accepted with grace and good humor):
Tyson’s precise point is well-taken: “I felt you more than I heard you.” (Many other critiques of Dawkins, et al. are not, as I noted in 2007.)
Now Phil Plait has made a magnificent, deeply personal, effective and well-titled plea along the same lines. Please set aside 31 minutes at the end of your busy day to hear what he says.
But also note what he does NOT say. He doesn’t say that being heard requires us to respect the unrespectable, or bury our passion, or deny our convictions. He’s not calling for a moratorium on religious satire or political outrage, or I’d tell him to bugger off. I intend to continue treating ideas themselves with whatever respect or contempt they earn. But when it comes to discourse with our fellow mammals, the Tyson Equation nails it: facts plus sensitivity equals impact.
I’ve said too much. Take it Phil.