Wednesday, May 23, 2007

"What People Hear"

In his latest piece for The New York Review, "How Democrats Should Talk," Michael Tomasky reviews three fascinating books:

  1. The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina, by Frank Rich
  2. Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear, by Frank Luntz
  3. The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, by Drew Westen

I owe my title to Luntz, whom Tomasky describes as "the Republicans' most famous spin doctor of the past fifteen years." Writing as an advocate for the Democrats, Tomasky has a lot of admiration for Luntz. This is not nothing-succeeds-like-success admiration but instead involves a key insight (which is also the basis for the third book under review):

What Luntz does understand that many Democratic consultants do not is that language used by a politician sets off a network of associations in voters' minds. These associations, even for people who follow current events closely, are more likely to be emotional than rational, and voters "reason" their way toward emotionally biased conclusions.

Once again, I felt the icy breath of synchronicity, because I read this review very shortly after seeing Flock of Dodos on Showtime. The description of this film on the Showtime Web site is worth repeating:

Evolutionary biologist Dr. Randy Olson is the star of this tongue-in-cheek documentary that examines both sides of the evolution versus "intelligent design" debate, a controversial subject that has pitted faith against reason and school boards against scientists in an increasingly emphatic war of words and ideas. Which side will survive, and which will go the way of the now-extinct dodo bird?

Olson is at his most effective when he lets his subjects (on both sides) speak for themselves; and the most painful truths emerge when he manages to assemble a "flock" of Stephen Jay Gould's former colleagues for a recreation of their Harvard poker nights. What is revealing is the way these really smart guys end up venting about the intelligent design advocates. In retrospect I really should have counted the number of times the word "stupid" (along with its variants) was invoked in that one scene. These guys live and breath rationality; but, when it comes to being able to influence decision makers, such as school boards, they are the ones most likely to go the way of the dodo!

The bottom line is that they all need to leave their laboratories long enough to get some coaching from Doctor Luntz. Actually, a good start would be to grasp two simple rules:

  1. You are not going to persuade anyone of your position if the first thing you do is call that person stupid.
  2. Furthermore, you are not going to persuade that person if you call anyone that person clearly admires stupid.

The problem these scientists do not seem to be able to confront is that these are rules of rhetoric, rather than logic. In his play about Galileo, Brecht had Galileo belief that presenting the Inquisition with basic scientific facts and the logical path of his reasoning would be sufficient for the Inquisition to clear him of the charges of heresy. Brecht's point was that Galileo was woefully mistaken and paid a high price for his mistake. Olson's poker table was surrounded by latter-day Galileos who refuse to admit that not all thought processes are rational (even though I am sure they could all come up with examples from their own everyday lives). Brecht's tragedy is not that irrationality exists but that so many rational minds refuse to admit that irrationality cannot be dealt with by rational means. Think about that the next time you pick up a biology text and discover that the chapter on evolution has been replaced by one on intelligent design!

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