Patriotism as the Messenger for Science

Neil deGrasse Tyson just appeared in a video that is a must watch. Take the 4 minutes and watch it:

He comes out swinging immediately:

“How did America rise up from a backwoods country to be one of the greatest nations the world has ever known?”

(Meanwhile the video shows pictures of George Washington, American flags, the Model T, and Neil Armstrong walking on the moon.)

“We pioneered industries. And all of this required the greatest innovations in science and technology in the world. And so science is a fundamental part of the country that we are.”

What he’s trying to do is show patriotic conservatives how that pro-America feeling1 goes right along with science:

“Guys, look at everything America has done with science. Science makes America great!”

This is a good technique because you cannot change people’s minds on big issues with mere data. When you tell someone that their view is wrong you are attacking their identity. The issue is much bigger than just the single thing being discussed.

(There’s even something called the “Backfire Effect”, where a person will end up believing their current POV more after hearing disconfirming evidence.2)

So when you’re trying to persuade someone you need to do more than show them data. You have to give them an out! You gotta show how the narrative they’ve told themselves about their life and their values can coexist with this new information.3

And that’s the message Tyson is going for with his opening:

“You want America to be great again? Look at all these things that made us great before, all accomplished with science.”

Other parts of the video are more critical of the “make America great again” crowd. But overall the video demonstrates a powerful messaging strategy that everyone who is worried about science should use:

Science is patriotic and American.

It is American to discover and test and research.  It is American to invent new products and industries.

A really cool idea IMO would be to show what discoveries and research led to what products.

E.g. what were the scientific papers that led to the iPhone?

Here’s the (I believe) original paper about multi-touch from Jeff Han at NYU’s Media Research Lab (PDF) and here’s his first public demonstration of multi touch, from a Ted talk.

There’s often going to be some “basic/fundamental research” that goes into new technology products, and seeing a concrete connection between the research and the final product would go a long way into convincing people of the value of science.

  1. Which, for the record, I also subscribe to!

  2. Read more about the Backfire Effect and how to counter it here (PDF).

  3. To be clear: we all tell ourselves narratives about our lives and values, so this technique should be used when you’re trying to persuade anyone of something significant.