Voltaire was a master of using the social media of his time to change public opinion. He knew how to put on a good show with clear, trackable characters that could draw in the public’s attention. Frankly, he was so good at it that the myths he created are still with us to this day. In Voltaire’s time, the dominant ideas on gravity were those of Descartes. He wanted to unseat those ideas and replace them with those of Newton but orthodoxies within academia are stubborn and not easily displaced. And so, Voltaire ignored the academics and turned towards the general public. Together with his lover and math tutor, Emilie du Chatelet, he wrote a book called Elements de la Philosophie de Newton. Voltaire didn’t sell the math. He sold the man. He created a genius myth. Here is the not-too-subtle imagery from the frontispiece.
It features Newton as God, Voltaire as divinely inspired author and Emilie du Chatelet surrounded by super clingy angels.
The myth that Voltaire created, like so many other genius myths, has been so powerful that it has become entrenched in our modern cult of ancestor worship. It’s a huge problem academically because kids fall for the genius myth and therefore think that some people are just born with “smart”. It’s no different than the problems with photoshopping models.
And yet, even though Katie O’Brien and I spent the first chapter of The Straight-A Conspiracy debunking these genius myths, I now find myself having to create them, much like Voltaire. Why? Because people need clear characters to be drawn into the science. Humanity’s superpower it turns out is social intelligence. We communicate ideas through storytelling. And we LOVE drama.
Science is a large and collective endeavor. Professional scientists know this. They know the massive intellectual debt they owe to others. They’re not comfortable taking credit for the work of others. However, we now find that the public face of science is portrayed by a group of individuals who don’t think that way at all. In order to unseat them, we can’t offer a vacuum. We have to offer a clear alternative. We need to create new characters who can take their place on the world stage.
Meet the Four Horsemen.
Now, meet their competition: The Holy Trinity of Cultural Evolution.
See how clear that alternative is. Dark and Light. A division between science and religion versus the possibility of reconciliation between science and all the other cultures of the world. Two choices. And now, you know there’s a clearly branded alternative aren’t you curious to find out what The Holy Trinity of Cultural Evolution has to say. Sure you are. And, fortunately, in just four gospels you can understand the Scientific New Testament.
This sort of clear branding isn’t what serious scientists do!!! And that’s precisely why there’s such a breakdown in science communication. The public doesn’t meet the 200 awesome, friendly, humble, curious scientists that we’ve interviewed on Mixed Mental Arts. They meet these guys.
Of course, these guys could change their tune but that would come with admitting that they’d been alienating people from science and that the problem wasn’t what Jesus taught but that they didn’t understand what he was saying. And the problem is that humans can be proud and they can harden their hearts against certain things. In fact, powerful people who profess to care about science can actually set themselves up as an obstacle to scientific progress. In the end, I can imagine that if you’re Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris you might get lost in the role. And as any actor knows, that’s something you never want to do.