How researchers get heard
Abstract lines

When Your Rationality Isn’t Rational

You never want to do this in America in the wake of a weekend of two mass shootings:

At a time like this, you never want to belittle your audience’s fear, frustration, anger, panic & despair.

And a time like this, you especially don’t want to wield data in a way that says people are just being deceived by their limbic systems about what’s really important, and you have the answer.

Not if you want them on your side to solve a problem.

Rationalism isn’t rational when it alienates the audience. Data can be powerful, but only if they are presented in context — context which includes the receptivity and emotional rawness of the listener at that moment.

Henceforth, let’s call egregious violations of this precept “Neils,” because Dr. deGrasse Tyson seems to commit them so often. (Yes, there should be an annual award.)

But let’s also not kid ourselves that, as researchers or research communicators, we are immune to indulging in this kind of self-comforting hauteur with our audiences in the name of science or data. Because it’s epidemic among researchers.

Experts can afford to indulge in “Neils” because they don’t have “leading” as part of their brief.

Authorities lead. So they can’t.

As the novelist Anne Lamott wrote in her book Bird by Bird: you can chop with the sword of truth, or you can point with it. Point unless you have no other option.