Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting March 14th. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, sticky messages from Chip Heath and the gas-powered bicycle, sort of. Nick Goddard did an experiment in which he figured out how far he could bicycle on the amount of energy in a gallon of gas and we'll talk to him in a bit, and we'll also test your knowledge about some recent science in the news.
First up, Chip Heath is a professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford University Graduate School of Business. With his brother, Dan, he wrote the book, Made to Stick, which examines why certain concepts survive in the marketplace of ideas and others whither away. I called Heath at his office at Stanford.
Steve: Hi Dr. Heath! How are you today?
Heath: I am very good. Thank you for having me.
Steve: What is your key message today?
Heath: We wrote a book called Made to Stick about how to get ideas across to other people, and readers that you have, the listeners that you have that are interested in science, there are certain really important messages to get across. Unfortunately, those messages don't always stick. It's, in fact, to the last presentation that you saw or the last article that you read. It may be that a lot of ideas that a person spent months or years putting together didn't stay with you, and so we are interested in what makes some ideas resonate with people and other ideas not. So one of our favorite examples is, John F. Kennedy talked in 1961, proposed to the nation that, "We put a man on the moon in this decade." Now that was an idea that changed the way the people thought about the world. It motivated thousands of people across dozens of organizations for seven or eight years and that's the standard of, you know, an idea that's going to change people's thoughts and behavior. So the question is, how do we take that very important ideas that we have, and get them across to people in a way that's going to stick with them?
Steve: Okay so let's analyze as an example the JFK message, and maybe we can compare it to, it just popped into my head, the Gerald Ford "Whip Inflation Now" message, which has only stayed in people's consciousness, if at all, because of how unsuccessful it was as a message.
Steve: So maybe we can compare those two. Let start with JFK's, you know, "Let's put a man on the moon within this decade, not because it is easy but because it is hard."
Heath: Exactly because it is hard. If you think about that idea, it embodies some of the six principles that we talk about. It's a simple idea. It's unexpected – at the time, putting a man on the moon was science fiction, I mean, it’s a long way up there and the air is very thin. It is a concrete idea, so everybody understood what man, moon, and decade meant. It's credible, well actually that's its downfall, so if the President being on his stage hadn't been saying that at that time, and if he hadn't been willing to invest resources in NASA, that idea would have lacked credibility on its own. It's an emotional idea and it's a kind of a story in miniature. We're going to create this incredible challenge, we're going to accept the challenge, we're going to return the person safely at the end, and so in terms of inspiring people and telling them a kind of story in miniature, that idea has at least five of the six qualities. Now if we turn to "Whip Inflation Now," it's simple, but it's not very unexpected. It's not at all concrete. I mean, what is inflation? I guess if you could whip inflation, that makes it conjures up the fragment to [a] more changeable visual image, but it failed by talking about something as abstract as inflation.
Steve: Right! It sort of, in current parlance, it sort of lacks an exit strategy.
Heath: (laughs) Yeah! We're mixing all kinds of political ideas.
Heath: Yeah! What's amazing to us as we look through the book is that if you look in any field of endeavor, it's easy to find a few really brilliantly crafted ideas. You know, so when Darwin writes The Origin of Species, that's one of the few scientific pieces of logic in history that people still read, you know, decades after it was originally written. But Darwin was also a master at very concrete exposition. He tells us a lot about animal husbandry in England that set up the analogy, the simple analogy of what he's going to [be] proposing happened in the natural environment on its own. That's a master craftsman with a really important scientific idea
that [who] wrote it in a way that it still resonates for us, you know, years and years after he originally wrote it down.
Steve: Right! A hundred and fifty years later almost, so this idea of the importance of narrative is really interesting, I think, because scientific literature is not known for its narrative structure necessarily. But are you saying that the memorable scientific papers—for example, Watson and Crick or relativity—these have some of these sticky attributes to them?
Heath: Well, I think we will distinguish communication among the community of scientists from communication when we as scientists want to communicate with somebody outside that community. Watson and Crick cut to the chase in their paper: "We propose a structure for DNA." That was their first, you know, sentence. They were able to cut to the chase because everybody knew that was a problem to be solved. Linus Pauling had just proposed his structure a few months before and it turned out that it was the wrong structure. But now think about going into a classroom and talking to a group of kids that you're trying to excite about science. Or think about, as a scientist communicating to a policy maker, a member of the public, in a way that's going to inform their decisions. That idea has to cross the boundary and it turns out that there is a problem, a villain that we identified in the book for people like scientists who are experts in their field, and researchers in psychology and economics have coined the phrase, "The curse of knowledge" to describe the difficulty that we have as experts in communicating with somebody else.
In One of the best ways to picture the curse of knowledge is to think about the last time you had a problem with your computer and you went to a really sophisticated computer person that [who] figured out what was wrong with your computer. You are on the other side of the cursor knowledge in that interaction. You know that person was coming out at you with lots of details and very abstract, you know, terms, and what you really want to know was, what do I need to do to fix my computer? But the irony is that we're all like that IT person in our domain of expertise. We spent years studying psychology or chemistry or physics and the trick for us is to take the perspective of a new person when we try to get that message across, and one of the things that narrative does is that it forces us to be very concrete, you know, so Darwin was using examples for this brilliant idea that he had come up with, that were very concrete, very tangible, very much shared in common with the readers that [who] he was trying to reach, and that should be [the] standard that we aspire to in communicating our ideas about science.
Steve: And who exactly, in addition to the groups you've already named, who is this book really aimed at? I mean, anybody can benefit from being able to express themselves more clearly and powerfully, obviously.
Heath: Yeah! One of the readers that we imagine in our mind, as we were writing the book, is a high school science teacher who volunteers for a nonprofit organization in his or her spare time, so that teacher has to make ideas stick with students who are distracted by all kinds of other things in a high school classroom. They have to do that during their day job, but then they go and work for a nonprofit organizationmdash;they probably don't have a lot of resources, a big ad budget or anything—and they are trying to make ideas stick with their communities and their neighbors, and so we are really hoping to reach people
that [who] have important ideas or [who are] just struggling with how to get other people to pay attention to those ideas.
Steve: What in your own research made you enthusiastic about trying to write this book for a mass audience?
Heath: I've actually done a lot of research on what makes naturally sticky ideas naturally sticky, so one of the studies that I did was on the four humors theory of disease. So this idea that bodily health is based on the balance of fluids in the body like blood and phlegm and bile. That was an idea that dominated western medical practice for over two millennia, and yet doctors during that time were systematically killing off their patients by bleeding them when their body was trying to fight off an infection or purging them off nutrients at the time when they were sick. And so they started to fascinate me as a researcher – why did these bad ideas survive in this social marketplace of ideas and why in some cases can they survive for a very long time? And at some point it started to irritate me that, you know, here these bad ideas are sometimes very successful and yet we can't get across good ideas about, you know, telling people to stop suntanning or stop smoking, and so I started wondering if you could borrow the principles of naturally sticky ideas and use them to make true and useful messages more sticky.
Steve: Really interesting. So in a nutshell, why did the four humor ideas stay around so long?
Heath: It's again one of these very concrete tangible ideas, so the theory evolved over time so, you know, initially there were just four humors and they were kind of listed in a list. Over time they decided, well there are wet humors and dry humors and hot humors and cold humors, and they had this little elaborate two by two matrix that made the theory kind of elegant, seemingly elegant, seemingly simple, and it was very concrete because they gave you things that you can do as a doctor. Unfortunately those are the same attributes that John F. Kennedy's man on the moon speech had in its own way, but in the case of the four humors theory,
that these were based on the wrong underlying theory, and so all the simplicity and all the concreteness actually was to the disservice of the patients of doctors during, from the time of Galen on up to the time of George Washington.
Steve: Okay! So now you're frightening me a little bit in that we've talked about what makes an idea sticky, but we haven't talked about what makes an idea good.
Heath: That is not a topic we tackle in the book. We actually start the book with the urban legend about the kidney thieves – and so a business traveler accepts a drink from an attractive stranger and then winds up in a bathtub full of ice with his kidneys missing.
Heath: So that is a completely and utterly bogus idea.
Steve: You left out the part where there is a note next to the tub.
Heath: The note saying, call 911.
Heath: You've heard this one, and so…
Steve: Oh yeah! This happened to a friend of mine.
Heath: (laughs) Yeah, he's a friend of a friend.
Steve: Right! Exactly.
Heath: So what is amazing is that there are some ideas that stick in society on their own. There are no public relation[s] professionals
that [who] are propagating the kidney theft legend, and yet why can't we make scientific ideas more attractive to the students that [who] we're trying to reach in our classes or to the public that needs to make informed decisions about policy? And what we argue in the book is that if you understand the principle that makes naturally sticky ideas naturally sticky—you're in charge of the truth of your idea but I have good faith in the Scientific American audience that the ideas that you're trying to get across are true and important—and what we need to do is to understand how to get those true and important ideas across to people in a way that they will understand and remember.
Steve: Well that sounds like a good idea to me. Chip Heath, very interesting stuff. Thanks very much for your time.
Heath: Thank you for having me.
Steve: For more on sticky ideas and info about their book, check out the Heath brothers' Web site: www.madetostick.com.
Now it's time to play TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories, only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS.
Story number 1: The light from the sun can speed up an asteroid's rotation.
Story number 2: Elderly people who get new glasses have an increased risk of falling.
Story number 3: In certain spider species, males prevent females from mating again with a chastity belt of sorts – they leave part of their genitalia within the female as a block.
Story number 4: Long legs were probably considered incredibly attractive among our ancestor Australopithecus over 2 million years ago, leading to humans gradually becoming taller.
We'll be back with the answer, but first, Nick Goddard was a recent college graduate with a dream, or a nightmare if you're not interested in spending long hours on a bicycle seat. Anyway, I will let him tell you more. We talked in the library at Scientific American.
Steve: Hey Nick! How are you doing?
Nick: I'm pretty good, how are you?
Steve: Good. Good to see you here. So tell everybody what you did. You did a really interesting experiment.
Nick: I did a bike ride to show the distance a cyclist can travel on the amount of energy in a gallon of gasoline, which you can think of as the miles per gallon a cyclist gets.
Steve: Right! If you could suck down a gallon of gasoline and then expend that energy on your bike, you figured out how far you could go.
Nick: That's right! A gallon of gasoline has 31,000 calories in it. A calorie is just the amount of energy. Sounds like a lot and it is – a gallon of milk has 1,920 calories for comparison and, you know, each day one might eat 2,000, 2,500 calories
Steve: When did you do this by the way?
Nick: I did it in June of 2006.
Steve: June of 2006, and I actually read about you in Bicycling magazine. There was a little story in there that recounted your exploits. So you calculate that there are 31,000 calories in the gallon of gas, and now how do you actually go about seeing how far you can go on 31,000 calories?
Nick: Okay! That's a good question and it took a lot of thinking to figure out exactly how to do that. Initially I had thought that I was going to need to record all my activities on and off the bike during the trip, record the weights and, you know, nutritional information about all the food I ate and weigh myself before and after, and treat myself as, I guess, a closed system, whatever. But rather than doing that I found a heart rate monitor that I can strap on, tell out some information about myself, and then start exercising, and it will estimate the amount of calories I burn while exercising.
Steve: Okay! So you have a little bit of an assumption there that that particular monitor is accurate.
Nick: Absolutely. The monitor I used was a Polar heart rate monitor and I had to input my age, weight, height, you know, how much I was exercising, etcetera, and it would come back and tell me the amount of calories I burnt, the number of calories I burnt above my BMR.
Steve: BMR being…
Nick: The basal metabolic rate, it's the maintenance energy expenditure for your body.
Steve: Right! You just sit on the couch with (laughs) I won't even say watching TV—we'll just have you sitting on the couch in the dark—that your BMR is just the amount of energy your body is expending just to stay alive…
Nick: That's right!
Steve: …at a very low level of activity. All right! So above that is the actual caloric expenditure on the bike.
Nick: So that was the calories and I would have that recording my caloric expenditure whenever I was riding. To record the distance I had a cycle computer that was hooked up to my wheels and would measure how far I travel, so using those two things I could calculate how, what miles per gallon I was getting.
Steve: Bottom line, how far did you go?
Nick: I got 633 miles out of the 31,000 calories.
Steve: 633 miles, and how long did that take you to actually do?
Nick: It took 8 days and I was riding may be 10 hours a day.
Steve: Are you married?
Nick: (laughs) No not yet.
Steve: I was going to ask you what your wife thought about all this. Okay, your girlfriend.
Nick: I got a ton of support from, you know, my family my…I didn't a have a girlfriend at that time.
Steve: So that made a little easier. I'm going to be off with it.
Nick: Or a job.
Steve: Or a job. Yes it is helpful to be unemployed to try this kind of
the thing as well. What do you think, as the designer and executor of this experiment, what do you think? What are your conclusions?
Nick: Okay! So initially, when I thought of this, I was working at a car magazine and I had been driving fancy cars around—Corvette Z06s and Bentleys—going through so much gas. One night driving around with my friend in his Corvette, we burned up 11 gallons of gas. Then the next day I went into work and was writing an article about gasoline and ethanol and the different limitations and advantages of both, and it turned out that there was not as much energy in a gallon of ethanol as there is in a gallon of gasoline. So then I started thinking about the energy in a gallon of gasoline rather than just the cost, which is what, you know, people are used to thinking about. And I started wondering how far I could travel on the amount of energy in a gallon of gasoline, and after some quick calculations it seemed like it would be around 900 miles per gallon. And indeed I have read about the Polar heart rate monitor and people seem to think it overestimates your caloric consumption by between 30 and 50 percent.
Steve: So your initial estimate, if you take that error into account, was pretty much right on the money.
Nick: Yeah, it was, so I was pleased with that. Also I didn't have to ride so far, which is, you know, convenient.
Steve: You were glad you were a little less efficient than you expected
Nick: Yeah! Or certainly that thing was saying I was less efficient, so at the end of the day really it's not, the ride isn't about telling everyone to ride their bike on a huge trip, it's just to give people a general idea of how bikes might compare to their car on a, you know, a given journey
Steve: Just in terms of overall efficiency.
Nick: Yeah! Energy consumption, because if, you say, it requires, let's say, 500 calories to ride your bike for an hour—or whatever you might see on an energy, an exercise chart— it doesn't really give you a good idea of how efficient it is to ride a bike. So this was just a way to compare it to miles per gallon, which is what everyone is used to thinking about for cars.
Steve: On the other hand, the cost of a gallon, of the 31,000 calories in a gallon of gasoline, is miniscule compared to the cost of, what was it, 1,900 calories in a gallon of milk?
Nick: But olive oil, vegetable oil, they have around 28,000 calories per gallon and that’s the best thing. Tablespoon of olive oil has 100 calories in it and that's pretty much, right, the same amount that gasoline would have in it. So after doing this ride and having begun to see food as fuel,
and I'll now put some olive oil on a salad and think, "Man, I really am pouring pretty much gasoline on this salad."
Nick: It tastes better.
Steve: Right! it tastes better, and so, you know, a teaspoon of…was it a teaspoon or tablespoon?
Nick: The bigger of the two.
Steve: Yeah! A tablespoon of olive oil should send you off for about, just going to estimate, about a five-mile run
Nick: Yeah! I would say so.
Steve: For more on biking as an alternative to driving, check out transportation alternatives at www.transalt.org. Also check out the Better World Club. They offer
a similar automobile related services as AAA but they lobby for more environmentally friendly options and they will cover your bike. If you turn that front wheel into a potato chip and you can't bike home, they will come and get you, and they’re are[at] … you guessed it: www.betterworldclub.com.
Quick piece of reader mail: a couple of weeks ago on the podcast we were talking about that contest in which graduate students would compete to see who is best at explaining their research to a lay audience, and my guest Wayt Gibbs said:
Wayt: That’s a tremendous idea and I think it should be replicated at every single university across the United States, and they should do it for faculty as well. In fact they should do [it] especially for faculty. It should be a condition of tenure in life (chuckles).
Steve: While David Dannemiller of Friendswood, Texas wrote in to say, "Wayt chuckled when he said this, but I am afraid that some people might have taken him seriously, I feel compelled to comment. I have worked with some great engineers and scientists who were terrible public speakers. The thing is, these people don't need to speak to the public, they need to speak to other technical people and they are good enough
of [at] doing that. They are doing great work yet would not have had a chance of winning that contest. The technical world needs great speakers and writers to help others understand what we do, but not everyone needs to be a great communicator and it should not be a condition of tenure."
Now its time to see which story was TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Let's review the four stories.
Story number 1: Sunlight speeds up asteroid's spin.
Story number 2: Older people with new glasses actually fall more.
Story number 3: Male spiders plug females to stop them from mating.
Story number 4: Our Australopithecus ancestors probably liked long legs
Time is up.
Story number 1 is true. Recent data confirmed the notion that the light from the sun can change an asteroid's rate of rotation. The light is absorbed and then radiated back out again, and because an asteroid is irregular in shape, the energy radiated back out differs from place to place and you get some torque. For more, check out the March 7th article on our Web site called "Scientists Show That Asteroids Are Solar Powered."
Story number 2 is true. There seems to be an increased risk of falls among elderly people who get new glasses. That's according to research in the February issue of the Journal of the American Geriatric Society. Possible causes include an adjustment period during which people are getting used to their new glasses, as well as people being suddenly more active and adventurous while moving around once they can see better.
Story number 3 is true. In some species of spiders, males really do leave part of their genitalia behind as a plug to keep females from mating with other males. For more, listen to the Friday, March 9th edition of the daily SciAm podcast 60-Second Science.
All of which means that story number 4 about long legs being all the rage millions of years ago among our ancestors is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Because until tool use allowed us to fight with constructed weapons, shorter legs meant a lower center of gravity and better balance for those up close, in person fights, and so short legs were probably the ones that were selected for. That's according to the research in the journal Evolution. However, short legs and a lower center of gravity are still selected for to this day on any high school wrestling team.
Well that's it for this edition of the weekly Scientific American podcast. You can write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out news articles at our Web site, www.sciam.com, and the daily SciAm podcast 60-Second Science is at the Web site and at iTunes. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.