Smart Goes Pop: Making Ideas Lickable

For the last 13 years, I’ve existed between two worlds: Science and Hollywood. And I’ve got to admit, I feel much more comfortable around the nerds. I may have left high school 18 years ago but it’s taken high school a long time to leave me. Cool kids make me nervous, and yet I’ve become convinced that the rift between the nerds and the cool kids is why humanity can’t seem to get its shit together right now.

While scientists often object to the way they’re depicted in Hollywood, the stereotype has way more truth than the nerds would like to admit. Nerds are terrible communicators, which is why you see the same three scientists on camera ALL THE TIME. It’s not because there are thousands of charismatic, funny, charming scientists sitting around explaining the science in simple, accessible ways. Neal deGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan, Bill Nye the Science Guy, Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins–they’re the best #TeamScience has. Carl Sagan is dead. Stephen Hawking doesn’t just talk like a computer; his voice is a computer. Richard Dawkins uses his intelligence to belittle people who think differently. Look up Richard Dawkins on YouTube and all the top links are him losing his temper with people he considers idiots or HUMILIATING people who disagree with him. Hmmmmm. And science wonders why it’s having difficulty connecting with the general public.

Dawkins is the patron saint of nerd rage. As I’ve said elsewhere, with friends like Dawkins, science doesn’t need enemies.

And the last decade has had an incredibly satisfying quality for #TeamNerd. After thousands of years of jocks humiliating nerds, the nerds have triumphed. People like Bill Gates are now pin-ups of a sort for a very limited group. Sexy, Bill!

And yet, it’s worth remembering that a big part of why computers became cool is because they were taken out of the hands of nerds and made into beautiful objects. As Steve Jobs said in reference to OS X: “We made the buttons on the screen look so good you’ll want to lick them.” Jobs transformed the computer industry because he made something that had been reserved for nerds attractive. He made smart pop!

Since graduating from Harvard with a degree in biochemistry, I have been slowly detribalizing. I’ve been leaving the tribe of the nerds. It’s not that I want to be cool. It’s that in order to promote science I need to figure out how to make it cool. I need to make the latest scientific thinking lickable. And sadly, this means realizing the problems with the approach that the nerds take to the world. It’s not that we’re super rational; it’s simply that we’re out of touch with our feelings.

The satirist Jonathan Swift pretty much nailed the problems of academics centuries ago with the “fictional” peoples he called the Laputans and the Balnibarbi. Gulliver’s Travels is at first blush a fun romp through fictional worlds. Actually, it’s a biting satire of Swift’s own world that points up cultural patterns that persist to this day. There are people who want to live forever. There are petty sectarian conflicts over trivial differences. And there are high-minded experts who feel they should rule over the common people but take little interest in helping them solve their on-the-ground problems. While we talk about an Ivory Tower today, Swift situated his academics on a floating island that was levitated by a giant magnet. The Laputans who lived there were obsessed with abstract thought. They spent all day thinking about mathematics and music with their eyes rolled back in their heads in reflection.

In fact, these nutty professors were so lost in thought that they had to be accompanied by a servant at all times who carried an inflated air bladder and would bop them on the head when they needed to engage with the world around them. The Laputans needed a bop on the head to be reminded to eat. Meanwhile, the people down on the ground were known as the Balnibarbi. The Laputans insisted on ruling over these people but took no interest in helping them. So even though the Laputans had all this great theoretical knowledge, none of it was applied, and the people on the ground were starving. Periodically, the Balnibarbi would rebel and the Laputans would bring their great island crushing down on them.

If you’ve spent as much time wandering around the science as I have, you realize that there’s some very good news. The answers to most of our problems exist. In fact, many of them have existed for a very long time but they’ve never diffused because, frankly, most academic books just aren’t lickable. In fact, they’re pretty dusty and gross. There’s yucky, unnecessary jargon, torpid prose, and very little thought given to the reader’s experience. In fact, the science is so unlickable that most scientists don’t even want to read it. If you’re a regular listener of Mixed Mental Arts–the podcast I co-host–then you’re aware of how utterly clueless most scientists are about anything going on outside their respective fields. You can hardly blame them. Scientific journals have terrible UX–aka user experience.

Fortunately, some people work to improve the UX of science. They’re called science writers–people like Dan Coyle, Mark Schatzker, Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Pink, Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker, Norman Doidge, Steven Johnson, Jennifer Jacquet, Carol Dweck, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Kahneman and the late, great Oliver Sacks. Some of these people are practicing scientists, and some aren’t. But, frankly, their books aren’t doing the trick. Sure, some people read these books, but a lot of people down on the ground simply don’t have the time or energy. They have exhausting day jobs, kids, families, and other worries. Many of the ideas in these books have real practical value, and so we have to do what cultures have always done to transmit beliefs and values. We have to make music, plays, and fun, simple stories that move those ideas.

And that’s what some people are doing. Take Pixar’s utterly brilliant Inside Out. Although it’s a fun kids movie, it’s actually a scientific Trojan horse. Two scientists I had the privilege of interviewing–Paul Ekman and Dacher Keltner–worked with the Pixar team to create a story with a simple but powerful science-based insight: Every emotion has a purpose. Although we often think of emotions like sadness as bad because they’re unpleasant, every emotion has positive social functions.

The throughline of the movie is Joy (and the audience) trying to figure out what Sadness is good for. Well, at the end of the movie, that question is answered. Sadness saves the day!

Sadly, scientists aren’t always supportive of the endeavor to move science into the mainstream. They’re often so lost in their own little worlds that they can use their powers to block the movement of science. They can bring their giant, floating island crushing down on people who are trying to move these ideas. After Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers came out, there was a flurry of excitement in the media around the 10,000-hour rule. In that moment, the rapper Macklemore read Outliers and wrote an awesome song called “Ten Thousand Hours.”

Working with teenagers who don’t believe that trying in school will pay off, this song was a dream. It was a rap by a super cool rapper saying that you had to practice a lot to get good at anything. Along with Katie O’Brien, I’d written a book called The Straight-A Conspiracy which took seven fields of neuroscience and psychology and packaged them in a form that disgruntled teenagers could appreciate. We cheered Macklemore and Gladwell on. It would have been nice if scientists had done the same. Instead, the original researchers felt compelled to write an article entitled Malcolm Gladwell got us wrong: Our research was key to the 10,000-hour rule, but here’s what got oversimplified.

Of course it was simplified, dudes. It was turned into a 4 minute and 12 second rap. That was the point. Quite simply, it wasn’t for you. It was for people who would never think of reading a scientific journal article. And that’s the audience that I’m interested in serving.

The world knows that technology needs to be made lickable. Few people currently understand that ideas need to be made lickable, and so scientists often get super technical and defensive about their pet theories…even when the data no longer support those theories. That’s exactly what has happened to Richard Dawkins. He’s not just an obstacle to promoting evolution to the general public. He’s an obstacle to advancing evolutionary thinking within science itself. He’s turned from Smeagol to Gollum defending his precious.

The irony is that Richard Dawkins and friends reached their current level of fame, in part, because they were so good at branding themselves and turning themselves into a meme.

Thanks for the playbook, Dr. Dick. We’ll use it to promote your opponents. Who are those guys, anyway?

Exactly. That’s Jon Haidt, Joe Henrich, and David Sloan Wilson and they are just a few of the people whose science needs to be turned into pop. Already one Laputan has tried to bring his giant, floating island crashing down on me, and I’m sure that many others will do the same and say I’m “oversimplifying” their ideas. However, painful as it is for me to admit, I think more often we’ll find that the nutty professors have been overcomplicating things.

It’s a wonderful thing to look at the stars, but it’s worth thinking about how the things you’ve figured out can be used to help people down on the ground.

In 2016, the Balnibarbi rebelled against the Laputans. As we move these ideas from science into pop, you’ll come to realize the people down on the ground had reasons to rebel.

Right after being born in Saudi Arabia, I was taken to the Callen house. Since then, Bryan and I have travelled the world with our Citibank fathers and somehow ended up in LA together. There we'd run into each other at family gatherings and do something that no one else in LA seemed to be doing: we talked about books. Since Bryan was kind of a big deal, Hunter and Bryan hatched a scheme to use his podcast to get on their favorite authors and professors. Out of that evolved Mixed Mental Arts and this tribe. For me, the marriage of entertainment and education is a return to how things used to be before our culture split story into two separate things. It's exciting to be able to build on the work Katie O'Brien and I did for The Straight-A Conspiracy and expand it out to every area of life. While I play a series of roles in the Mixed Mental Arts community (including Shitty Dutch Uncle and Bryan's #1 fan) my favorite role is as Toto who pulls back the curtain and let's the world see that there are no wizards...only men and women who try and puff themselves up to seem important.

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