Making a Case: Don’t be Like a Scientist

In a Point of Inquiry podcast in which Chris Mooney (author of The Republican Brain and other such books) was interviewing Bill Nye (The Science Guy) an exchange took place that was illuminating in that it underscored the issues of communicating complex issues in a way that can be understood.  In this exchange, Chris and Bill were discussing how scientists talk and that their use of terms like ‘very unlikely’ or ‘almost certain’ are often heard by the general public as equivocating and uncertain. Take examples from recent debates on climate change. Here are two ‘typical’ exchanges you often hear scientists having.

Statement:
Scientists disagree on the causes of climate change

Response
97% of all scientists agree on the causes of climate change

What is heard
There is disagreement within the scientific community on the causes of climate change

or how about this one

Statement:
The causes of climate change are unclear, it could be natural

Response
It is very likely that the causes of climate change are man-made (the IPCC language)

What is heard
The causes of climate change are unclear, it could be natural

The point that Bill Nye makes in the podcast is that scientists need to talk to the public in the way in which people commonly understand risk and uncertainty (which is not very well). As he states

I think we need to take risks, and I’m talking specifically about qualifying your uncertainty to such an extent that it sounds like you have nothing to say. Just take a chance. The world is getting warmer because of people. There I said it. … when you make your answer short and understandable, you are going to have to pick sides, and that’s not so bad.

Think of the first exchange above, is it truly just 97% of scientists that believe climate change is man made? It is probably 97% of all scientists but what if you excluded scientists who were not in the field, scientists who did not have a published peer reviewed paper on the topic and scientists who had ever received a dime of funding from a commercial fossil fuel company? If you did that, the percentage probably would be 100%. So just go ahead and say it! Science has determined that climate change is caused by people – no ifs, ands or buts.

Once this is done, there are no more climate change skeptics, only climate change deniers. Skepticism requires that you are both open to contrary evidence and that you are convinced by real evidence. Today, you can be skeptical about predictions that the planet will warm 10 degrees by the end of the decade (instead of 5), or that the seas will rise 12 feet by then (instead of 3), but you cannot be skeptical about the fact that temperature will increase and seas will rise due to human causes. If you do not believe those facts, or are ‘withholding judgement’ on those facts, then you have crossed the threshold from skepticism to denial.

What does this have to do with innovation? Well in the innovation world, one is constantly dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity. There is a tendency on the part of many managers and executives to be skeptics/deniers when it comes to evaluating new opportunities. Being a skeptic is good, being a denier is destructive. The way this often manifests itself is  the ‘prove it’ syndrome in which more and more ‘proof’ is required to validate aspects of the new opportunity. This can devolve into a never ending cycle of ‘needing more evidence’, much like the cycle that many climate change deniers fall into. Nothing is sufficient. When this happens, the executive has slipped from skepticism into denial and only sees or hears the ambiguity and uncertainty, no matter how small it is.

So what can an innovator learn from the examples that Bill Nye discusses? The first is to be clear and simple in your statements. Even in the face of complexity and the inherent uncertainty of a new innovation, simple declarations carry the day. Nuance and probabilities take a second seat to the clarity and power of a declared vision.  The second lesson is to take risks. Not risks in the innovation itself, that is already being done and is inevitable, but risks in how you talk about it. This doesn’t mean that you should fool yourself (or others) but when the evidence indicates that something is real, don’t qualify, equivocate or hesitate.

And by the way, next time you meet a climate change denier, do the same.

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