As non-scientists plying our trade, I believe we should be wary of justifying our practice on the basis of scientific research.
Don’t get me wrong, science intrigues me as much as it does the next layperson. But the problem for laypeople like us is that all our scientific knowledge necessarily comes predigested – usually second, third or even fourthhand. Not surprising really given that primary sources in the field of science are a closed book to us.
Many of the people who write most clearly and entertainingly about science aren’t scientists either. I’m a big fan of writers like Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Pink and Rita Carter, but as far as I’m aware, they don’t hold a single science degree between them.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, especially when the knowledge itself is decidedly dubious. Pop scientific explanations in the field of public speaking have a tendency to go awry. A little reading turns us into experts, and soon we find ourselves making bold claims about the connection between certain behaviours and specific brain regions – claims which would make a genuine expert cringe.
What’s the problem with having a bit of harmless speculative fun, you might ask? Well, my first response is that it’s far from harmless: it begets an endless supply of half-baked pseudo scientific monstrosities that damage our professional standing and brand.
We find our professional practice polluted with “scientifically proven” ideas like 93% of communication is nonverbal; or the notion that each of us learns best according to their preferred learning style; or the contention that educational kinesiology (brain gym) is considerably more than a ragbag of pseudo scientific tosh.
The first thing that using the phrase “scientifically proven” reveals about you is that you’re not a scientist – which means that what you’re telling me should probably be taken with a giant pinch of salt.
Science doesn’t prove things. Research can strongly support a hypothesis, it can suggest relationships or causality, it can even be convincing – but it can’t prove things. It can however disprove things.
Scientists validate their research through the process of “peer review”. They submit their research papers to other experts in the field who assess their validity, their significance, their originality, and their clarity.
Experiments in various fields are being carried out all the time. But most of them aren’t peer reviewed, so we should be extremely wary of using their findings to justify what we do.
I would also argue that though science can throw light on some aspects of our professional practice, we’re not dependent on it to explain and justify what we do. Let me give you a recent example in the field of language.
Earlier this year the BBC broadcast a fascinating programme called ‘Why Reading Matters‘. In it, science writer Rita Carter told the story of how the use of brain imaging in modern neuroscience is beginning to reveal the effects of the act of reading on the brain.
In one part of the programme Shakespeare scholar, professor Philip Davis, tells the story of how he’d sought the help of neuroscientist, professor Guillaume Thierry, to explain what was happening in his brain when he responded to Shakespeare’s rhetorical inventiveness.
The rhetorical device that interested Davis was the way that Shakespeare occasionally surprises his audience by turning an adjective, or noun, into a verb. In the film he gives an example from King Lear in which the adjective ‘mad’ is transformed into the verb ‘madded’ – “A father, and a gracious aged man… have you madded.”
Davis describes the effect of this device on him as “primal”, “exciting”, “electric”, and “visceral”. And he asks the neuroscientist to use brain imaging techniques on him to see if the shapes in front of his eyes have an effect on the shapes behind his eyes – i.e. his brain.
This visceral view of language is central to our ‘Words that Move Mountains” approach to communication, but my point is that though I find the brain science intriguing, our practice does not depend on it anymore than an audience’s delight in the brilliance of Shakespeare’s language would.