Category Archives: Communication

Why I don’t watch video link replies

In brief:  Videos are not often a good way to present evidence. If you’re trying to convince me of something, I prefer to see a clear, concise argument in text form. Thanks for understanding.

When I’m in a discussion on the Internet and someone makes an unusual or unlikely-sounding claim, I will keep an open mind and ask for evidence. Sometimes the reply comes in the form of a video. My general rule now is that I do not watch these videos, with a few exceptions*. Here’s why.

  1. Video is an effective tool for conveying emotion; it’s less effective for conveying information. If you have a clear, concise argument, text is generally preferable. Emotions can be fantastic, but they’re not great evidence.
  2. Watching videos is much more time-consuming than reading a concise article. In an article I can skim, pace myself according to how easy or difficult the language and arguments are, and often I can quickly identify whether the writer is making sense or not. In a video, it might be several minutes in before I find out whether the argument is based on carefully weighed scientific research, or on an assertion that space lizards are conspiring with George Soros to give us all vaccines that make us believe in global warming.
  3. Text lends itself better to structure, which aids the presenting and weighing of evidence.
  4. Responding to text is much more straightforward – I can copy and quote as appropriate. It’s easier to get on the same page about what precisely was said, claimed, proven.
  5. Text lends itself much better to providing referencing, and it’s much easier to find the references as they will be linked from the text where a particular claim is made, or found by scrolling down.
  6. My experience with replies in video form has not been positive. Let’s assume that your video reply is different – more rigorous, logical, persuasive and honest. If we don’t know each other yet, I don’t yet have a way to tell you apart from other people on the Internet who sent me links to terrible videos. So start with a clear and concise argument in text form, and we can discuss the video later, perhaps.

*The exceptions:

  • When the video comes later in the conversation, when we have already come to some agreement and can see each other’s perspectives.
  • When the video come from someone I know, with whom I have often had discussions in the past.
  • When we are both members of a community that places a high value on reasoned, civil discussion.

So if you send me a video link and I respond with this post, know that I mean this with respect and good faith, and that it’s part of my attempt to properly understand your argument and weigh the evidence.

Communication only succeeds when people hear you

Of communication and cultural blank slates…

Paul Romer is a prominent economist with a vision for “reform zones” in developing countries, with charter cities that operate independently of the rules and institutions that have failed to create wealth in the country as a whole. The idea was to invite foreign countries to help set up new rules and institutions and build the cities, experimenting with new ways of doing things, to find what would work to create wealth and end poverty.

But for years the idea had no traction. Part of the problem was an accusation of colonialism – which seems to make no sense if the country is inviting them in and asking for help. However, Romer is not a people person, and he couldn’t sell the idea, until he had help packaging it into a clear, emotionally appealing 18 minute presentation – i.e. a TED talk.

This led to him connecting with two Honduran government officials with a similar vision who had also had trouble selling their idea, Octavio Sánchez and Javier Hernandez. With the help of the TED talk, the Honduran government was convinced. In a matter of months from Romer standing in front of an audience at TED, a constitutional amendment had been passed to allow charter cities (ciudades modelos) and work had begun preparing for this grand experiment. (See the follow-up TED talk.)

But all was not well. Romer was perceived to be bossy – Hondurans expected him to work with them, but he was apparently dictating terms. International media consistently reported it as Romer’s vision, rather than recognizing the work and vision of Hondurans. Local opposition increased, Romer was isolated, and a dubious-sounding deal was made with powerful interests. The project failed entirely when courts ruled it unconstitutional, but not before an outspoken opponent of the project, human rights lawyer Antonio Trejo, was assassinated.

Romer plans to keep trying, and says he’ll do things the same way next time. He has little patience for emotion and sensitivity about who gets credit and such matters, and believes that such things should be put aside in the interests of an important project.

TED helped Romer package his message, but it apparently didn’t solve his fundamental communication problems, nor lead him to take a participatory approach to the project. Running a large project in a country with corrupt and dysfunctional institutions takes more than communication, of course, but with the team divided and national opinion shifting away from them, they had little hope of facing down major challenges.

A bonus lesson: A charter city can never be a completely blank slate – corruption, paternalistic attitudes, non-participatory approaches and other institutional and cultural problems are part of the institutions working to set up the new city, and they won’t disappear by passing a constitutional amendment.

Further listening: Self-Improvement KickThis American Life, January 4, 2013.

Talking about a confronting subject – Neil deGrasse Tyson

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson calls on fellow atheists to show respect, compassion and understanding towards believers.

The context is the relationship between education and belief in a personal god. This belief declines from around 90% among the general public to 7% among elite scientists – small, but  still a significant minority of top scientists who believe in some kind of personal god who can intervene in the world.

At 2:39 Tyson says this:

So here’s my problem, here’s my concern: When you’re educated and you understand how physics works, and you’re mathematically literate, and you understand data, and you understand experiment, and you go up to someone who doesn’t have that training, and they’re religious, and you ask them “Why are you you religious, you’re believing in invisible things that influence your life, what’s wrong with you?”, that’s unfair.
It’s not only unfair, it’s disrespectful, for the following reason: until that number [the 7% of elite scientists who believe in a personal god] is zero, you’ve got nothing to say to the general public. These are scientists among us in the National Academy of Sciences who are religious and pray to a personal god and I know some of them. And you’re fighting the public for their religious beliefs?
Figure that one out first, because maybe there’s an asymptote. Maybe you can’t change everybody. Maybe that’s telling us something. Maybe there’s something in the brain wiring that positively prevents some people from ever being an atheist.
If that’s the case, in a way, they can’t help it, and you’ll never know it because you’re not one of them. So I ask you, first for compassion with the public, but you should target your exercise, and your experiments on understanding that number. Because that’s not zero. Yes it’s low, but it’s not one percent, it’s not one-half of a percent, or a tenth of a percent – it is seven percent – one out of fourteen.Neil deGrasse Tyson

How far to take this? I think Tyson himself demonstrates a great balance in his public life, speaking clearly and openly, with humor and respect.