The importance of sound bites, Ctd.

For yet another reason why Ta-Nehisi Coates is my favorite blogger, here he is echoing my call for better sound-bites:

To be, all at once, accurate, concise and emotive strikes me as a difficult task, and I agree with Chomsky that it’s especially difficult when you’re going against the grain. That said, I’m not convinced that it’s a challenge which academics and intellectuals should avoid, or even have the luxury of avoiding. Surely concision, favors the simple and conventional, but this is as true in writing as it is talking on cable news. The problem is that intellectuals are (hopefully) trained to write. They aren’t trained to talk.

As difficult as it may be, those of us trying to convey a more nuanced picture of science have to wrestle with this challenge.  Lehrer and Freedman’s work, while important, need to be complemented with concise, clear statements.  Without them, our message will not be very effective.


  1. I agree that it’s hard to fundamentally change people’s minds and harder if you have to do it concisely, but I don’t agree with Chomsky that it’s a matter of how many facts you can cram in. In my experience, people rarely make fundamental changes to their outlook simply because of access to new facts. They need a new context, a new point of view. That can sometimes be done in a moment, but if you’re going to do it with words, you need to be something of a philosopher-poet. Chomsky’s neither. He’s an “intellectual” (whatever that is), so he doesn’t see that and is left moaning on about how some TV entertainment show won’t give him the time to recite all his facts.
    For similar reasons, I’d say you’re onto a loser trying to convey a more nuanced picture of science. Surely, a “nuanced” picture of science is the perspective of the professional scientist? If your concern is persuading joe public to believe (say) that substantial global climate change in the next few decades is a possibility that actually matters, you have to make it relevant to joe public, to persuade him that it’s a possibility with undesirable consequences – as seen by him. Will a nuanced picture of science do that? I doubt it. Instead, you have to start by understanding the emotional world of joe public.

    1. Hi Peter. Good points. Facts aren’t as important as some of us intellectuals like to think, and it is important to make issues relevant to the joe public. In my mind I have two distinct goals that aren’t necessarily linked. I do care about getting joe public to act on global warming, and that surely involves doing some of the things you suggest. But I also care about communicating a more nuanced picture of science. That’s separate in my mind, and I that achieving this goal will not necessarily help me with the first problem (as you say).

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