A girl recently invited me to a public lecture she was running with Helen Caldicott, the famous anti-nuclear advocate. Except the girl couldn’t remember the bit after ‘famous’. When I asked her, she narrowed it down to something big picture related to the environment. Helen’s achievements were obviously secondary, if not twenty-secondary, in motivating her to organize the event. Though the fact she was famous for whatever those things were was important.
I’ve done a few courses in science journalism. The main task there is to make science interesting and intelligible for people. The easiest way to do this is to cut down on the dry bit about how reality works, and fill it up with stories about people instead. Who are the scientists? Where they are from? What sorts of people are they? What’s it like to be a research subject? Does the research support the left or the right or people who want to subsidize sheep or not immunize their children? If there’s an unsettled issue, present it as a dispute between scientists, not as abstract disagreeing evidence.
It’s hard to find popular science books that aren’t at least half full of anecdotes or biographies of scientists. Everybody knows that Einstein invented the theory of relativity, but hardly anyone knows what that’s about exactly, or tries to.
Looking through a newspaper, most of the stories are about people. Policy isn’t discussed so much as politics. Recessions are reported with tales of particular people who can’t pay their employees this year.
Philosophy is largely about philosophers from what I can gather.
One might conclude that most people are more interested in people than in whatever it is the people are doing. What people do is mainly interesting for what it says about those doing it.
But this isn’t true, there are some topics where people are happy to read about the topic more than the people. The weather and technology for instance. Nobody knows who invented most things they know intimately. It looks from this small list like people are more interested in doings which immediately affect them, and doers the rest of the time. I don’t read most topics though, and it’s a small sample. What other topics are people more interested in than they are in those who do them?
Going on that tentative theory, this blog is probably way too related to its subject matter for its subject matter. Would you all like some more anecdotes and personal information? I included some above just in case, as I sat in my friend Robert Wiblin‘s dining room and drank coffee, which I like, from the new orange plunger I excitedly bought yesterday on my way to the highly ranked Australian National University, where I share an office with a host of stylishly dressed and interesting students tirelessly working away on something or another really important.
Charity work is another area where anecdotes are more appealing than data showing actual effectiveness. With for-profit investments, stories are still important but there’s at least some balance.
The best non-fiction writing combines stories, argument, and data. Anecdotes can be used to illustrate a larger point – for example in your first paragraph.
Oh boy, another thoughtful post by Katja on some interesting topic or another. :)
“Philosophy is largely about philosophers from what I can gather.” — That is very, very true, in my experience, and I’m glad to see someone else noticed that. (Or, rather: I feel validated seeing that someone smarter than me feels the same way. :) )
That’s what turned me off to philosophy classes. Most of them are more about philosophers than about philosophy. Even when it’s about a particular philosopher’s ideas rather than about their life and character, that’s not much of an improvement. Out of curiosity, I once started auditing a class on existentialism, and it started with a unit on Kierkegaard. Especially given that much of the assigned text appeared to be gibberish, I dropped the class after finding that it failed to explain why I should care what Kierkegaard thought.
“One might conclude that most people are more interested in people than in whatever it is the people are doing. What people do is mainly interesting for what it says about those doing it.”
Insightful…..this has recently been of interest to me as well. I made the observation on a recent long canyoneering trip that most of the discussion during the trip was recounting personal experiences with other people/trips. The group was composed of many types of people and there were frequent departures and new arrivals to keep the conversation interesting over the three week period. Despite the prodding of a couple of us to intentionally steer the conversation into deeper topics such as science, philosophy, environmental or political issues…..the conversation just ‘naturally’ reverted to personal narratives. Trying to keep the conversation on the level of ‘concepts’ and not reverting to personal anecdote was not successful but for short spurts. It seemed that this was the default way of sharing information between people. Operating at the impersonal concept level seemed not to appeal to most people’s communication/information-gathering style.
“… what is the most important information in any message?”
“The name of the messenger.”
–Question twelve on the examination for renewal of a prophet’s license
And that’s why Akbar Zeb can’t land a job as an ambassador to the middle east.
Exit comprehension, enter personalities: the only access that many laymen can have to many scientific and philosophical matters is through recourse to potted biographies and amateur psychology; one just does not have the expertise to assess competing claims (which themselves might be not readily commensurable – hence the focus of philosophical research on philosophers as much as philosophical ideas).
Where the facts of the matter are easier to ascertain – the weather as it has been; the functioning of my kettle – one already has purchase and so feels no need to scrabble around for clues.
Should complicated matters requiring close, specialised scrutiny or involving competing claims, re-enter the fray, as in the case of long-term weather forecasts, the layman once again will take what he regards as the quickest way to grasping the nub of the matter and attend to personality and potted biography in order to judge where best to place his flag and thereby gain information that he might be able to act upon usefully.
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