On Monday NASA’s DART anti-asteroid satellite successfully smashed into a space rock.
According to Darrell Etherington,
NASA has completed a key step of its “Double Asteroid Redirection Test” (DART), smashing a satellite roughly the size of a vending machine into a small moon that’s about half-a-mile in diameter. The moon, Dimorphos, is orbiting an even larger asteroid, Didymos, and while neither is in any danger of colliding with Earth, they’re good test cases to see whether us puny humans smashing them with technology can cause them to change course.
DART is basically a demonstration of what would be a ‘Hail Mary’ pass in the case of any asteroid actually threatening Earth — namely, can we use a human-made spacecraft to redirect any planet-killers enough that they end up safely whizzing by our home planet instead of causing a repeat of the extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs.
We’ve seen a lot of amazing science in the last few years. From the James Webb telescope to mRNA vaccines, the leaps we have made in science and technology just since 2020 truly boggle the mind.
And all of this should give us hope. Look at what we are capable of! Surely, we can do something about climate change! About energy costs! About the pollution in our oceans and lakes! We are smart enough to figure this stuff out. If only we could just get motivated.
So why aren’t we motivated? I mean, these are huge problems. The stakes couldn’t be higher. But do people really know how high the stakes are? It’s an interesting question – is this a problem of science, communication, or capitalism?
Newsflash: it’s not a problem of science. The science is clear. There are those who will try to tell you it’s debatable, but those people are lying to you. This is settled stuff. People have created a sense of false equivalency. In an attempt to “remain neutral” or “present both sides of the argument” they have found the one person who thinks climate change is a hoax and let him have his say while the hundreds of people who say this is real and serious and we need to be concerned are represented by one person and it looks like it is an even fight. It’s not. That’s a moral pratfall.
So in that regard it’s a combination of capitalism and communication that is killing us. Capitalism demands a certain thing from us, and it leads to bad communication.
Science and communication have a long history. This goes all the way back to the Enlightenment.
Back in the 1500s a group of philosophers and scientists we will call the Epistemologists were gathering steam. They had far-reaching effects on any number of fields and disciplines. In particular, they followed a psychological-philosophical school of thought whose principal concern was to connect communication theory to the nature of humanity.
One such philosopher scientist was Francis Bacon. He was called “the greatest poet of science.” He recognized the importance of some of the great new discoveries of the age and realized a total revolution in human knowledge was coming.
Bacon believed in the Faculties of the Mind. Because of this, progress was an inherent principle of life (the Enlightenment!) He claimed there were Three parts of human understanding: History to Memory, Poesy to their Imagination, and Philosophy to their Reason. To the faculties of understanding, reason, imagination, and memory, he added will and appetite. This led him to believe “the duty and office of Rhetoric is to apply Reason to Imagination for the better moving of the will.”
Bacon believed that our ideas, thoughts, and communication are obfuscated by what he called “Four Idols.”
There were the Idols of the Tribe:
These were the Limitations in the nature of humanity.
Human nature exemplifies obsessions, restlessness, and being overly emotional. We don’t respond correctly to messages that may be inaccurate or hard to understand. There are deceptive beliefs inherent in the mind of humans, and therefore belonging to the whole of the human race. They are abstractions in error arising from common tendencies to exaggeration,
distortion, and disproportion. In short, these are the shortcomings we deal with just because of our human nature.
There were the Idols of the Cave:
These were unique qualities and experiences of the individual. The problems of individuals, their passions and enthusiasms, their devotions and ideologies, all of which led to misunderstandings of the true nature of things. In other words, the idols of the cave are the deficiencies you have because of you, the individual.
There were the Idols of the Market Place:
Here he warned of the pitfalls confronting people who failed to used words carefully. He cautioned that you can’t confuse words with things. You might call the Idols of the Marketplace a problem of political discourse: The use of words to mislead.
Then there was the Idol of Theatre:
This was long-received wisdom, the ancient systems of philosophy, and the arbitrary divisions of knowledge and classification systems held onto like dogma. He warned without emptying one’s mind of the old ways, no new progress could be made.
These Idols kept people from thinking and communicating clearly. The Idols inhibited progress.
Bacon’s goal was to construct a system that would lead people to a world “founded on the sciences.” He saw the idols as barriers to that world.
This is connected to our study of communication because Bacon wanted to get rid of the copious, flamboyant style that was in style at that point, with something simple, plain, transparent. He said scientific ideas would best be expressed in a clear, unadorned style.
When we look at the world we are living in now, I wonder if Bacon’s communicative goals make more or less sense? One the one hand, it would be lovely if we could just plainly state, “here is the science. These are the facts. This is what you need to know.” But the thing is, we live in a world where we can see, very clearly, that facts only get you so far. Science is very obviously rhetorical. The fight over climate change and vaccines proves that the facts are only part of the story. That might be due to Bacon’s Idols, but I don’t know that ignoring that they are there and being as straight-forward as possible is reasonable. If we want to see results, we may have to account for Bacon’s Idols in our rhetoric, which will mean a vital and intentional rhetoric, as opposed to the sterile and clinical rhetoric that Bacon hoped for. Because the Idols are entrenched. The rhetoric has to be responsive.
Another famous scientist/philosopher from this time period was Rene Descartes.
You know Descartes because he famously said, “I think, therefore, I am.” Now, I can’t overstate what a major moment that was in western thinking.
The problem of existence has plagued us since…forever. How do we know we are? The existential dilemma is a pretty old one. In fact, we are so concerned with whether we exist or not that God’s name is literally a statement of being. God’s name, Yahweh, or Jehovah, is literally, “I AM.” He tells Moses, “Tell them I AM sent you.” It’s as big a statement as you can make. I am. I exist. I am here.
And Descartes had the audacity to say, “I know I am.” That’s a statement of biblical proportions! Basically, he was sitting in front of his fire, and he thought, I see the fire, I feel the heat, but my senses could fool me. My perceptions are not trustworthy. How can I trust my sight? How can I trust what I feel? I have to doubt everything I perceive. The only thing I can know, absolutely know for certain is that I doubt. I am thinking about these things. And as long as I doubt, I must be. Therefore, cogito, ergo sum. And modern science and philosophy was born.
Descartes thought eloquence was a natural ability rather that something you could work on as a skill. He believed the syllogism was incapable of investigating the unknown and separating truth from error – it just communicates what we already know. Descartes loved math – it was certain. He had little time for the vagueries of things like rhetoric.
For Descartes – A Claim Must:
± Be verified and have no room for doubt
± Divide all difficult aspects of a subject into as many parts as possible
± Follow a pattern of inquiry using a climactic order and a cause/effect sequence
± Use and all-inclusive system of enumeration and prevent omissions
So Descartes saw little room for gray areas. He believed reason can determine truth and discipline the imagination! And notably, the only acceptable communication model adheres to the principles of geometry. Once again, the goal was a plain, objective form of communication that clearly stated the truth of the matter.
Descartes’ notion of “Truth” is kind of like Plato’s. They both believe in a capital “T” truth. But Descartes truth comes from science while Plato’s comes from the gods. But even Descartes was trying to prove the existence of God, so I guess you can’t really escape him for a while.
But there was a counter to this clinical approach to communication. Giambattista Vico was a professor of Rhetoric in Naples. He had grander ambitions, but he never made it out of that position. To be honest, Vico was never appreciated while he was alive. It wasn’t until 100-150 years later that anyone noticed or cared much about Vico’s work. But when the world took note of Vico they took note in a big way. In many ways he is the father of the social sciences and semiotics. Vico took issue with Descartes. He believed there were other ways to see the world. And he had a unique vision of truth and humanity that is worth talking about today.
Vico criticized Descartes for arguing that math and science are the only legitimate forms of knowledge and treating other kinds of inquiry like history, law and art as inferior. Vico argued that rhetoric was a superior philosophy because all knowledge is based on argument
So Vico objected to Descartes’ refusal to accept the importance of language in producing knowledge. Language, according to Vico, reveals the process of reason, passion, imagination, social convention, historical contexts, national language, and has socialized us.
Vico described something he called the sensus communis, or common sense that was just as important, if not more so than the Cartesian method. Common sense doesn’t mean for Vico exactly what it means today. When we say common sense, we mean a kind of practical understanding of the world. Vico mean the sense that we have in common – our shared understandings. What are those things which we have in common which connect and bind us together which give us a shared understanding of the world around us? Language gives us access to that common sense.
History is made by people, and people are not always rational. So our methods for discovering knowledge might not necessarily be scientific and mathematical. We may need the rhetorical and the artistic to understand the world around us because the world is created by historical, cultural, and linguistic forces. Vico is one of the first, then, to think in terms of historical context. He argued the historical circumstance determine the actions of people and social institutions. So people who study history should think of the standards of that historical period, not their own time, when they evaluate history.
Vico was just as interested in truth as Descartes was, but he had a much more nuanced understanding of it than Descartes did. Vico maintained that there were abstract truths which were general or eternal. These may be transcendental or even scientific. But there were also concrete or specific truths which change from situation to situation or in the moment. These are both important – and you need different methods of inquiry to understand them.
In Vico’s understanding of the world reality is constructed rhetorically. Think of it this way – if you have to make a decision in your daily life, you don’t use the scientific method. When you decide who to marry you don’t use the scientific method. When you decide what to have for dinner you don’t use the scientific method. When you decide who to vote for you PROBABLY don’t use the scientific method. And life is made up of THESE decisions. Our reality is crafted not by mathematical, scientific questions, but by arguments we make to each other and with ourselves. And so, we need methods of inquiry outside of the scientific method. We need to understand truth and reality outside of just what can be tested.
And so, things like rhetoric are vitally important. We build truth and consensus not with cold, clinical fact, but with persuasion and even artistic communication. In Bacon’s terms, we have to account for those Idol’s.
So when we think about how we communicate about science, we have to ask ourselves, do we approach this from Bacon and Descartes’ perspective or from Vico’s? It would be great if we could just speak plainly. As Descartes would have us, geometrically. If there were just one meaning for every word (like John Locke wished for), and we could spell out our intentions and speak our truths with no effort to persuade or make any stylistic efforts.
But that denies the humanity of our audience. It denies our place in history. If we do that, we ignore the very things that make our ideas important.
Science, and the capitalism that corrupts it, are products of the Enlightenment. And the major thinkers of the Enlightenment would have us believe that science can speak for itself. That if we just speak plainly enough then the truth will out. But Bacon acknowledged there were things that get in the way of our speaking and understanding. What good is all of our plain speaking if we just ignore that?
Vico gave us the beginning of a theory that helps us make sense of the way people make sense of the world outside of the sterile world of the scientific process. And the great irony is, that may ultimately be the best thing we have to help us make sense of science.
Is Vico the end-all, be-all? No. Lots of people have come and gone since then who have changed the game in lots of positive ways. But Vico was the Enlightenment rhetorician who provided a counter to people like Descartes and Bacon. Even though he wasn’t appreciated in his time.
Now, this doesn’t solve the problem of capitalism. That will have to be a whole other episode. Communication isn’t the only problem at the heart of our scientific troubles. It’s definitely a double-edged sword. Capitalism definitely drives the communicative problems. But there’s only so much I can do in under 25 minutes.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.