More Science Talk
Scientific American Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina and psychology researcher Robert Epstein, a contributing editor to Scientific American MIND magazine, talk about falling in love and staying that way. And science communicator Dennis Meredith discusses his book Explaining Research, and the importance for scientists of reaching the public. Web sites related to this episode include www.explainingresearch.com
Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American posted on April 7th, 2010. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast we'll talk about what scientists need to know about presenting and explaining their own research with communications consultant and writer Dennis Meredith, but first let's talk about love. Scientific American Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina did just that last month at the 92nd Street Y's Tribeca site here in New York City along with psychology researcher Robert Epstein, who is a contributing editor to Scientific American MIND magazine. He was the author of the article "Falling in Love and Staying That Way" in the January/February issue of MIND. Here are Mariette and Robert at the event last month here in New York.
DiChristina: How many poems have probably been written to love— "Ode to Love", you know, "She Walks in Beauty", all these. I have a book, actually, I meant to bring it with me tonight because just [because] I thought it was very entertaining that there [are] [fat] stacks of tributes to the idea of love. And obviously our culture values this super-highly, and yet in many ways, in so many ways, we leave all this love to chance. And the fact is, you know, although we value [it] highly and a mutual attraction [is] an entrée to a long and lasting commitment. We don't seem to have the tools that it takes to continue on with that commitment. So let me talk a little bit about that and what some of the reasons why, you know, love is actually good for you, things that we've found that and ways that we, through Robert's research and others can improve [our] techniques for maintaining that commitment and love over time. So love, [this] is not only fun but has some practical benefits; this is research you could, if you read Scientific American MIND, and maybe [after] this evening you'll take a look at it, this is some of the work that we've covered. People who're in love, you know, tend to be more creative because the feeling of love induces a long-term perspective that makes people that activates global processing centers rather than short-term perspective—that's where the sex comes in. You know, that's, kind [of], a part [that] brings up analytic thinking and rather short-term goals. People who are in love experience less pain. There was a study not long ago, women who were holding the hand of a partner who are known to them or looking [at] pictures of people who they know [and] love experienced less temperature sensitivity, [they would apply] a warm temperature to them [at the] research [center]; it makes you feel better in that sense. And long-term, people who've been in long-term relationships, through imaging studies and so on, we found that, you know, there is increased activity in pleasure centers of the brain; so love over time makes you feel better. So all this stuff is really great but it can be a little [elusive for us] and frankly practice does not make perfect here. One in two marriages, first marriages, end in divorce in our country; two out of three second marriages and three out of four third. So what is it about love that we want it so badly, we write columns about it, and it is good for us in so many ways but we seem to have trouble [building] it, well this where, hopefully, science comes in. Why love can fail and [we] confuse attraction with love. I remember my neighbour from across the street [always lecturing] me [on] the difference between infatuation and true love; and he and his wife certainly seemed to have it, and to this day they're married, I think 46 or 47 years at this point. So many of us, I think, we confuse that initial first flush of attraction with a long-term bonding that is love. You may [have unrealistic expectations, and we don't have these skills and this is where tonight's talk comes into place. So we [leave] love to chance but science shows that we don't have to. There are some key components which we'll dive into. The first [one]: commitment. I want to tell you just a quick story. I've been married 20 years, and it'll be 21 in September, and a lot of the things that we're going to talk about tonight I kind of bumbled into, and I got lucky and I'm glad now because the next 20 years I hope will be smooth sailing. But when I was first married and we went on a honeymoon, we met two couples, one married for 22 years and [the] other married about 33 years. And my husband and I am asked them, "What do you do, what makes you so successful?" And one guy leaned over and said, "There are going to be times," and actually [he said] "right now, you can't picture [it], but there are going to be times in the coming years when everything he does makes you crazy, when you can't even stand the sound of the way he eats [this] cereal and that's when you have to remember something extremely important: you're stuck."
DiChristina: And I started laughing because, you know, that's my natural way, you go ha ha ha . And the guy said, "No I'm not kidding, you really have to think of it that way: You're stuck." So anyway so this is the commitment point, and you've [got] to obviously communicate, be accommodating to your partner, and very interestingly, you have to learn ways to be vulnerable. There are more than 80 scientific studies that examined what keeps couples together over time and I'm going to just really quickly sweep through 10 areas supported by that research, and then we'll talk to Robert a little bit about it. So first one area that brings people together is some kind of arousal, right. So you go on a roller-coaster ride with somebody, you feel really close after that, or [you're] exercising, feel a little sexy; these things, so any kind of, you know, activity and things that, [you] go to scary movie, right? How many times this has happened? Somebody puts their arm around? Proximity and familiarity—so you're around somebody, you habituate [to] them, you're with them, if you consciously do so, make efforts to do so that will also help you build closeness. Similarity. So opposite people attract—you're dangerous and sexy, I am serious and not. But we tend to pair off with people who are like us; you know, they're similar in background, they're similar in intelligence and have common interest[s] and that also helps. Humor—humor is huge. When we first fall in love, humor, you know, we laugh a lot, humor attracts us; but jokes that partners make mutually help them to stay together over time. And I know this is certainly true in my own marriage. My husband and I have this whole series of code-word things that we say that we both find amusing. Nobody else has any idea what we're talking about. Novelty—you're doing something new together, so you're building a new experience, helps build closeness. Lowering inhibitions likewise. If you're kind, you accommodate your partner and you forgive, these things also help build closeness. Naturally [frequent] touch and sexuality. People who share secrets get together better and that's always a fun thing to do, I think. The key there is allowing yourself in certain ways to feel vulnerable with your partner; helps build that closeness. And Robert, I wanted to follow up on something—your studies with other cultures. Now in the U.S., very keen on romantic love [or] [at] least, you know, the feeling that before we make that kind of commitment [we should be in love]. But in other cultures, some other cultures they make the commitment and then grow in love over time, and what can we learn about that?
Epstein: Well the main point there is that it is possible; that it is possible to get together with someone with whom you are actually suitable which is something that at times, we don't even think about any more in our culture but you can actually get together with someone you're suitable to be with for the rest of your life and then build love over time. And in India there's actually an expression which is, "first comes marriage then comes love". And I've been interviewing people from different cultures around the world including India where that happens and I even went to India and interviewed couples there, I mean, who are in very successful arranged marriages in which love grew stronger over time. And so that's what I've been trying to understand more and more over the years is how they do this, how they can be in some cases deliberate about building love. And there's even a study published in India but using an American love scale called the Rubin's Love Scale. They compared love in love marriages in India because they have those too, true love and arranged marriages, and in this particular study in the love marriages, [love] starts up very high just like ours, our love does, and then over time it decreases. That's what all of our studies show: [love] tends to decrease over time. And in the arranged marriages insisted in my work too we see the love starting out relatively low because in some cases people barely know each other, sometimes they've had you know in half an hour of contact in total before they got married and then it increases gradually, surpasses the love in the love marriages at about five years, and 10 years out it's twice as strong. How does that work? That's what I've been working out for about six years. I completed one study last year, and I have a new one going now that's really interesting.
DiChristina: I suppose you can't tell us about that, yeah.
Epstein: No. I'm looking at, in both studies, I'm looking at factors that people in those marriages say contributed to the growth of love. And very often they're reporting things like, "Well he was injured, and I took care of him and I fell more in love." [Or] "I was injured or [I was ill and] he took care of me." "There was something terrible that happened, and you know, we shared the experience." And I get people to, kind of, come up with recollections, and now I have them rating things on scale[s] and almost always, that's what they're telling me is, there was a situation in which he was vulnerable or I was vulnerable, and love grew. Not every situation, but most of the ones they describe are of that sort, and in both studies, the most important factor turns out to be commitment. And what I've realized is that commitment is the ultimate expression of vulnerability—for better or worse? What greater kind of vulnerability could you possibly be expressing?
DiChristina: How do you get to be comfortable being vulnerable?
Epstein: Well by definition, especially in our culture, being vulnerable is uncomfortable. And I find that even I, you know, knowing what I know academically about these things, even [I] don't want to be vulnerable, I kind of put it off, and then I have remind myself how beneficial it is, how much I would get out of that, out of being closer, not being right necessarily, but being closer to my wife or closer to my children or [closer] to my elderly parents. And all I can say is [the] benefits are there; there is risk, and that's the downside because there is risk, if you're vulnerable to someone and that someone turns out to be a PUA as they say in New York, Pick Up Artist, you know, you could be hurt, right. So there are risks associated with being vulnerable, but again that's where the suitability issue comes up. If you first used your head about who it is you're being vulnerable with, [and] then allow yourself to be vulnerable, chances are you'll be fine.
Steve: Robert Epstein's article, Fall in Love and Stay That Way was in the January/February of Scientific American MIND magazine and is available in digital form at SciAmdigital.com
Steve: Dennis Meredith is one of the most respect science communicators in the country. He worked as a science press office[r] at Caltech, Cornell and Duke Universities before semi-retiring to the life of a gentleman farmer, and he's the author of a new book aimed at scientists and their need to communicate their research to the public. We spoke when we were both at the meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Science in February in San Diego. Dennis, against all odds, I hear you've written a book.
Meredith: Yes. [It] took three years of sitting in the basement of a cabin in the North Carolina mountains and once my wife let me out, there was a book.
Steve: And what's the book called, and what is actually the content of this massive tome?
Meredith: The massive tome, well it's called Explaining Research and the idea is that scientists just do not understand how to reach out to lay audiences. They've not been trained to naturally. They don't have a natural lay-level constituency. They are not trained during college to reach out to lay audiences. So I wanted to give them all the tools that they needed to explain their research.
Steve: Can you give me, just you know, the Letterman kind of top, we'll call it the top five list or even three. We've scientists, lot of graduate students who listen—what would be your major take home points to them in terms of reaching the public?
Meredith: Well, a lot of young scientists have grown up with the Internet now, they know about Web sites, they know about blogs and Twitter and all that, but I don't think any of them have thought about how they apply these new tools to advance their work, to work to make their research reach out, to audiences with the research. And so typically for example, science Web sites, scientists' Web sites look like something was thrown together without any thought, and what I want to do is give them a sense of what they need to communicate on their Web sites and why it's important to all these audiences that they want to reach.
Steve: So the Web site should just be a lot more user friendly and lay-user friendly.
Meredith: Lay-user friendly, but they also need to keep those audiences in mind. What are donors going to do when they come to their Web site; what are their colleagues, what do they want their colleagues to know; what do they want future students in their lab to know; what do they want their grandmother to know. And so if you think in that way, they think differently about their communication than they have in the past. They don't think about audiences.
Steve: And if you can't explain it your grandmother, there's a good chance you really don't understand it that well.
Meredith: That's exactly what Einstein said. He said you don't understand anything until you can explain it to your grandmother.
Steve: Now that was his grandmother.
Meredith: His grandmother, right.
Steve: Very bright woman!
Meredith: Yes, probably.
Steve: So other than building a really friendly Web site what should researchers be keeping in mind?
Meredith: Well I want to give them a sense, for example, of the uses of a news release. Most scientists think, "Well [a] news release goes out to the media, that's all it is." But there are six very different uses of news releases as historical documents, as communications to your administrations, as communications to students, which is all these uses for news releases that [are] beyond just to the media. And especially now that the media has basically collapsed, science media has collapsed. So you need to understand what those uses are.
Steve: And should we tell the dirty little secret to the listeners who may not know how the science communication world works about press releases, the dirty little, you know, which dirty little secret I mean?
Meredith: The one where they used news releases as prime sources now, in some cases, without actually going off and doing their own reporting.
Meredith: And so if you're a young scientist, or senior scientist, [if] you're doing a news release, you have to keep in mind [it just may] show up verbatim, and the quotes may show up verbatim, and so you need to explain in a way that the media are going to read it. And also importantly news releases these days are listed on Google News right alongside The New York Times and The Washington Post and the Associated Press. One of the major, the major messages, I have to scientists is [that] you are media now, and you have to accept the responsibility and develop the talents to be media.
Steve: It's the survival of the fittest situation and the media outreach is now part of your fitness.
Meredith: It is really, and what stunned me is there's a recent survey that found that the major national media, that is the nightly news and the major national newspapers devote only 2 percent of their coverage to science. And so this is an important gateway for a lot of the lay public to science and if that gateway is closed, its up to scientists now to maintain that gateway, to keep it open.
Steve: That's sort of the business part of this interview. Lets talk a little about, there's a fun part of this book that has to do with the way scientists perceive of themselves and the way scientists are actually portrayed in our entertainment. Why don't you talk about that?
Meredith: Well, a few years ago, I was sitting in a meeting with a bunch of reporters and this major scientist, this major national laboratory director stood up and started talking about scientists and how they['re] perceived. And he said, "Well, you know, they perceive scientists as being a geeky or strange or mad or unattractive," and he's talking about the public, and this didn't sit well with me, because I knew that that's simply not true. So I decided to go off [and] check my facts. So I did a survey of 140 movies that depict scientists, just picked them out of databases without any bias, and I judged whether they were depicting scientists, portraying scientists as heroes or villains and the ratio was six to one, heroes over villains and even the villains were not really villainous, they were not evil. A lot of them just had too much ambition or their science got away from them. So the ratio was much higher. So my message is that scientists are heroes to Hollywood.
Steve: What were some of the movies, [do] you recall?
Meredith: Well, the most prominent one right now is Avatar. Grace Augustine, played by Sigourney Weaver plays a major role in this movie as a hero. One of the big mistakes a lot of people make is they keep saying that in Jurassic Park, the scientists were villains; well if you look closely, the scientists were the heroes in Jurassic Park; the villain was a foolish entrepreneur and so they're just and of course who would argue about Indiana Jones being a hero. And then there's Tony Stark, Iron Man, there's a new Iron Man 2 coming out. And this guy's buff, he's an engineer and he's a hero.
Steve: And we have the CSI franchises.
Meredith: CSI, they're all scientists, they're all heroes and Numbers is a classic case, that's mathematicians being heroes, and they're just very few actual villains in television that are scientists; most of them are heroes.
Steve: And of course the archetypal scientist hero in entertainment is the professor from Gilligan's Island.
Meredith: Absolutely. When they got in trouble, it was invariably the professor that got them out of trouble using some brilliant scheme that he hatched—and he was really a main character and a very positive character on the island.
Steve: And let's give a shout-out to Russell Johnson, I believe [is] the actor's name.
Meredith: Russell Johnson, good man.
Steve: I interviewed him many years ago, and he was a lovely guy.
Meredith: Good man.
Steve: And for awhile there, there was a paucity of scientist heroes on TV, but then the CSI thing just really exploded.
Meredith: That hit hard, that really hit the public [consciousness] and I think, well it is true, however that even before CSI there were a lot of scientist heroes, but they were sort of in the background. For example, Law and Order has gone on for decades and invariably those detectives would go to see the forensic scientists and that's where they get their clues and then they go solve the crime.
Steve: That will be a short scene; we get two minutes with them. Now that's sort of been blown out in the whole hour of CSI as the researchers. And we also have Rick Moranis, is he a hero or is he kind of a variation on the absent minded professor theme in the I Shrunk The Kids franchise.
Meredith: He's a good example of a comic hero, what I call a comic hero. You know, people think, well he was a joke, people make fun of him and so, but if you really watch the movie, first of all he was very brilliant, he invented the machine that shrunk the kids, he didn't, they were shrunk by accident, and the minute they were shrunk, he launched into action and there's this classic scene of him hovering over the yard, suspended from wires looking for the kids and eventually he saved the kids. So, my message is that even when scientists are played as comic characters, everybody likes them; you like them, they're sympathetic, they're not played as foolish, they're played as sympathetic.
Steve: Okay, so what's the take home message about the portrayal of scientists? They're portrayed in a positive light; okay, so what do I do with that?
Meredith: Well, what I want scientists to know is when they walk into a room, whether they're testifying before Congress or talking to a civic group or debating over global warming or trying to fight this nonsense about children not being vaccinated; when they go in there, they go in there with a credibility and they go in there as heroes, they're natural heroes, people do respect them and right now too many of them have this inferiority complex and I'm trying to convince them they should not feel that way. When they walk into the room they have the respect of that audience.
Steve: Well that's it for this episode. For more about Dennis Meredith and his book, go to http://www.explainingresearch.com and get your science news at http://www.scientificamerican.com, where you can read John Harkin's blog item called "Can Brain Scans Help us Understand Homer?"—that's the author of the Odyssey Homer, not Bart Simpson's dad. And follow us on Twitter, where you'll get a tweet every time a new article hits out Web site. Our Twitter name is @SciAm, S-C-I-A-M. For Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.