Excellent talk from Susan Pinker on the difficulties of talking to the press about intelligence. She was able to very quickly explain that scientists often have great difficulty understanding that their interest in whether something is true or not does not meet the basic requirements of dealing with the public’s strong emotions regarding taboo subjects. Researchers cannot understand that a good story (true or not) always trumps their most earnest recital of reliable facts. The wisdom of crowds crowds out even the best statistics. You cannot expect to connect with an audience who are in the throes of righteous indignation by reading them a list of met-analytic effect sizes.
Pinker looked back at Hume’s theory of moral sentiments: Reason alone cannot be a motive to the will, but rather is the “slave of the passions”. Moral distinctions are not derived from reason. Moral distinctions are derived from the moral sentiments: feelings of approval (esteem, praise) and disapproval (blame) felt by spectators who contemplate a character trait or action.
By way of analogy, Pinker argues that the elephant in the room is not individual and group differences in intelligence, but the immense emotions which surround the subject, and reason is no more than the little boy riding the elephant.
Why should any member of the public listen to a treatise on intelligence testing when they are overcome with repugnance at, for example, the use of IQ tests to determine who can be subjected to capital punishment in America, and hold you responsible like a corrupt doctor attending a torture session? Unless emotions are understood, communication about facts is unlikely. Where there have been historical injuries these should be talked about, or it will seem that the researcher knows but does not care that abuses took place.
The next points apply even to non-taboo subjects. Experts are cursed with knowledge, often too much and of the wrong sort (too detailed, too complex, of marginal interest to most people). Jargon is a real problem, as is the lack of connection between a finding and everyday life, which may make researcher look utterly cold and heartless (particularly if it involves explaining to the journalist that they cannot boost their IQ).
It is essential to know your audience. Lecturing about sex differences, Pinker fell foul of a particular German audience who assumed that all science was a social construction of oppressive patriarchs. Forewarned, she would have discussed this view at the very beginning, and explained that she was describing the world as it is, not as it ought to be. She imagined that it would be clear to the audience, as an independent-minded professional woman who combined clinical psychology practice with science journalism, that she was not a stooge or a push-over as regards male domination.
Pinker’s one plea was “prepare yourself for talking to a journalist as you would for a job interview”. Understand your audience, and their interests and background before saying a word. Aim to make three points. If you want to say more, only do so if you can branch your additional remark off those three points. Never say anything “off the record”. There is no such thing. Watch your step, take care, and remember “the journalist always wins”. If you attack back (other than correcting an obvious major error) you will look petulant, and also give further publicity to whatever the journalist’s implied about you, for example that you want to use IQ tests to slaughter somebody, or clone a master race.
Finally, in defence of journalists, Pinker pointed out that they had to get the equivalent of a research grant every single day. They have little job security, and have to get something printed somewhere so as to survive till the following day. Their 24 hours is as big as your 24 month research project.
Finally: tell a tell a story. For example, what is the chance that a woman science journalist who was invited to give a lecture about a woman science journalist who died when a lorry hit her would herself be hit by a lorry a month before the lecture?
Damn, damn, damn. I should have started with that story. Anyway, let me tell you what happened next.
There was a lot of good stuff in this talk, and I hope she will get it printed somewhere so why not ask her to do so? email@example.com