It is always amusing when people make this claim that humans are supposed to be rational and coldly scientific, when we’ve never been any thing of the sort. I can’t point to any time when humans haven’t been wildly irrational beings. I mean, that in this age of science a sizeable majority still believe in a bearded guy in the sky that dish out severe punishments for minor social foibles prove this.

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Carl Sagan (Photocredit: Wikipedia)

Human evolution has made us into not the intelligent and wise ape, but the story telling ape. The fantasy writer Terry Pratchett and the scientists Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen wrote in the book “The Science of Discworld” that human beings are misnamed. Instead of “Homo sapiens” we should be called “Pan narrans”. Instead of the wise man, we should be the story telling chimp, because humans run on narrativum, and not reason and intellect. From the Ars Technica article linked above:

But that’s hardly the impression you’d get from the public debate. GM foods are often portrayed as untested or their safety a complete unknown. Rare, unreproducible results are often trumpeted as the final word. These are features that are shared with a number of other areas where there’s been a failure of science communication, and the authors argue that scientists themselves share the blame here: “the frequent non-scientific disputes in the media that are not balanced by an effective communication from the scientific and academic world, greatly contribute to enhance the concerns on GE crops.”

But the review points out that effective communication is hard because the scientific community is never 100 percent unified. The authors note that there is “animated debate regarding the suitability of the experimental designs, the choice of the statistical methods, or the public accessibility of data,” and that’s all a healthy sign that science is following its normal course here, even as its conclusions firm up. Unfortunately, this healthy debate has “frequently been distorted by the media and often used politically and inappropriately in anti-GE crops campaigns.”

Narrativum is what makes us build cathedrals, space shuttles, and go off to foreign lands and kill the foreign bastards, as well as try to convert the heathen. People sighing that we don’t follow cold hard logic are sighing over the nature that evolution has hammered into us. And what is logic anyway but another form of story that is uniquely shaped to fit human senses. Narrativum is counter-intuitive to logical deduction, because it is mainly something that works on feeling and intuition.

One of the best candidates for the worst story tellers are scientists. They appear to be utterly incapable of telling an inspiring, informative or even frightening story. I think Carl Sagan was one of the last good scientific story tellers. The current lot make for poor substitutes. I think the best of the current generation is professor Brian Cox from Britain, but that’s because he used to be in a band that was really popular, and so he’s cool.

This is actually a problem. If we don’t have people like Carl Sagan that can tell a good ripping yarn that’s exciting and inspiring and awesome, then we leave the field of scientific story telling to the sneering jackassery of people like Richard Dawkins who are more interested to win an argument than to convince people. There is a powerful difference; the former means leaving destroyed losers behind like a string of intellectual bodies while the latter means bringing the convinced along with their own enthusiasm and their own stories to tell that can create a ripple effect across the cultures and the globe.

And here’s the thing. Human beings tell stories to each other based on status and hierarchy. Humans create heroes and villains. Humans emulate the heroes, and work against the villains. Instinctively the people decrying things like vaccines and GMO and such know this, and they are successfully erecting villains like IPCC, Big Pharma and Monsanto to discredit all of science.

Since scientists are incapable of anything but sneering dismissal they leave the field, and allow for converting the non-scientist public to become anti-vaccers, climate denialists or anti-GMO campaigners. Scientists have a major obstacle ahead of them to overcome this mountain they are partially responsible for erecting. But that means that scientists must find another Carl Sagan that tells a story of science. Only then will they make head-way.