Clarifying vs Persuading: Learning from Szilard's "Voice of the Dolphins"

Clarifying vs Persuading: Learning from Szilard's "Voice of the Dolphins"

My friend Zac Cichy asked an interesting question on Twitter, as he often does:

The short answer to what scientists can do about UFOs at the moment is not much.

As Zac points out, testimony and short videos are not really sufficient to meaningfully investigate.

Why aren't scientists more excited or particularly interested in the UFO issue, despite the apparent admission by (mostly former) authorities that something is afoot?

Primarily, it is lack of data. But there is also a deeper and perhaps unspoken cultural issue at play.

The best way I can think to express it involves a poignant expert from a short science fiction story by Leo Szilard, physicist and key figure in the creation of the atomic bomb.

To very briefly highlight the importance of his role: the famous letter sent by Albert Einstein to urge President Roosevelt to undertake what would become the Manhattan Project was only signed by Einstein. It was actually written by Szilard.

The story I want to reference here is The Voice of the Dolphins.

In the The Voice of the Dolphins, a presidential scientific advisory group manages to convince the government to create a joint American and Russian scientific institute on a topic unrelated to national defense – a sort of way for both sides to collaborate and keep in touch, but in a less tense environment. Scientific diplomacy, if you will.

They settle on creating a biology research institute. The Soviet and American scientists there quickly become fascinated by dolphins. They find that dolphins might have equal or perhaps even superior intelligence to humans.

The scientists quickly realize "previous failures to communicate with the dolphins might not have been due to the dolphin's lack of intellectual capacity but rather to their lack of motivation." The breakthrough comes when the scientists get the dolphins addicted to a special treat. Amazingly, the scientists discover that dolphins are far more intelligent than humans when properly motivated.

What follows is fantastic fun. The dolphins begin to exert greater and greater influence on human society via their proxies at the research institution. Their intelligent and slightly detached perspective serves to highlight human absurdities. In fact, perhaps the dolphins are not what they seem to be – the story is a worthwhile read.

Here is where the story becomes relevant to the current situation.

The dolphins ultimately decide to buy TV stations, and to begin creating informational programs about politics. One of their major programs is the titular "Voice of the Dolphins." Here Szilard describes an accompanying pamphlet about the show:

Political issues were often complex, but they were rarely anywhere as deep as the scientific problems which had been solved in the first half of the century. These scientific problems had been solved with amazing rapidity because they had been constantly exposed to discussion among scientists, and thus it appeared reasonable to expect that the solution of political problems could be greatly sped up also if they were subjected to the same kind of discussion. The discussions of political problems by politicians were much less productive, because they differed in one important respect from the discussions of scientific problems by scientists: When a scientist says something, his colleagues must ask themselves only whether it is true. When a politician says something, his colleagues must first of all ask, "Why does he say it?"; later on they may or may not get around to asking whether it happens to be true. A politician is a man who thinks he is in possession of the the truth and knows what needs to be done; thus his only problem is to persuade people to do what needs to be done. Scientists rarely think that they are in full possession of the truth, and a scientist's aim in a discussion with his colleagues is not to persuade but to clarify. It was clarification rather than persuasion that was needed in the past to arrive at the solution of the greatest problems (emphasis added)

Szilard goes on to explain

Because the task of The Voice was to clarify rather than to persuade, The Voice did not provide political leadership, but by clarifying what the issues were in the field of politics The Voice made it possible for intellectual leadership to arise in this field.

These passages highlight a major but often publicly unexpressed value in the scientific community.

Difficult problems can be solved by describing and clarifying them very, very thoroughly. Although persuasion certainly happens in science – it is a human institution, and humans for better or worse do tend to think and communicate emotionally – it is considered far less valuable than providing new facts.

Aside from the obvious intellectual value of this approach, there is also a practical reason for it. Almost everyone who has worked in research has had the experience of thinking they had discovered something significant, only to later find out it was already known or that it wasn't actually true.

Attempts at persuasion therefore are often considered a mark of lack of sophistication; of someone who is either scientifically inexperienced or worse, someone who is basically a politician.

Experience teaches that observations at the very boundaries of knowledge are prone to error. That is because they often because they involve building new instruments or technologies. As we all should know, sometimes new things don't exactly work as expected.

For example, in 2011 an Italian group announced an experiment where they thought they had found that neutrinos that had traveled faster than light. Established physics predicted this was impossible, so if true, it would represent a paradigmatic shift. The scientific community did not leap to the conclusion that Einstein's theory had been shattered – instead, they carefully looked to see if they could find an error.

And they found one. Neutrinos are not faster than light. It turns out that a loose cable somewhere led to a measurement error.

The function of the scientific community wasn't to persuade others about an apparently incredible finding, but rather to continually clarify if it was actually true.

This is partly deep intellectual principle – we should be compelled by data, not by rhetoric. But it is also practical experience: don't oversell a big finding until it has been checked very, very carefully and broadly.

In my view, one of the major issues is that the UFO discourse is dominated by attempts to persuade rather than to clarify or describe.

Most of the conversation centers around TV and movies, clearly edited to convey a narrative. We've heard emphatic statements from figures like Elizondo who are certain that there is something compelling and unexplained in the data they've seen. Maybe they have, but so far the structure of the arguments has been persuasive rather than descriptive.

The conclusions, too, tend to be political – the call to action is to lobby Congress to take a somewhat undefined series of steps to solve the problem.

Attempts to ask difficult, probing questions are often met with silence or deflection. Elizondo has been scrupulously polite, but the wider UFO discourse often fixates on arguments from authority.

When the initial FTL-Neutrino finding was announced, the response was not in the main for scientists to make arguments like "our physicists are so experienced and intelligent, of course they are correct" or "so much money was invested in this equipment, and it has performed well in the past, we shouldn't be overly skeptical of the results just because they are challenging."

Of course, in the UFO conversation one finds exactly these kind of comments. Military pilots can't be wrong. Intelligence officials can't make mistakes. We ought to believe what they are telling us, because after all, these are the same people who make national security decisions involving nuclear weapons.

To be sure, data isn't necessarily wrong because it is challenging. I don't doubt that the intelligence community as a whole is astute. But, focusing so heavily on persuasion without further clarification is deeply suspicious to scientific cultural values.

The scientific frustration is that new facts don't seem to be arriving. Do we know how many significant cases there have been? Do we know simple things, like if the overall numbers are increasing or decreasing? Can we name five factual assertions that are known about UAP, how exactly we know them, and how confident we are in them – without resorting to persuasive rhetoric or an argument from authority?

Only that kind of conversation will really be of sustained interest to most scientists. Expect a lot of the assertions to wilt under scrutiny. Not because of suppression of facts, but the reality that the first hypotheses about complex stuff often turn out to be wrong.

Many of the answers given to Zac's question above are insightful and basically correct. There truly isn't enough data for the civilian scientific community to do much meaningful work. I've tried my best personally to contribute by identifying and analyzing the few imperfect datasets available. It is woefully inadequate to the task, and I'm sure others have done more and better work.

Still, with the work I have done so far, it would be intellectually dishonest to not name the principal problem. It is one of trust.

We have been thoroughly marketed to and lobbied. There has been much attempted persuasion, but little meaningful clarification beyond recounting of well-worn stories.

From the scientific perspective, this is marketing without a product. It lands us, somewhat predictably, waiting for a report produced in an entirely opaque political process. It is entirely unclear what to expect, if anything at all. One cannot productively analyze anticipation or promises.

My conclusion: we ought to learn from the The Voice of the Dolphin. Describe the problem systematically and exhaustively. Invest less in simplifying and persuading and more in accuracy and completeness. Find and admit the mistakes.

In short: clarify more, persuade less. Please don't ask me to watch any more TV or movies (though I'll happily take a new season of Succession). I'll happily read tables and crunch numbers any day though.