Could Parables Help Solve The World's Thorniest Problems?

How the Asteroid Saved Mankind

A just-so story

Richard Gayle via Consider the Facts

A finalist in our #CrowdGrant challenge hopes to inspire people to think about the world’s toughest problems in positive, creative ways

A common response to global problems like climate change and overpopulation is apathy (“I won’t be around to see the effects, so what does it matter?”) or pessimism (“Nothing we do will stop it”). So, we keep producing greenhouse gases and making babies, and we fail to generate any truly creative, new responses to these problems. So says Richard Gayle, a finalist in the Popular Science #CrowdGrant Challenge and president of SpreadingScience, an organization that trains scientists to improve their methods of sharing their findings, research, and ideas.

Gayle wants to alter the fundamental way we approach these problems, and see if that allows us to imagine new solutions. His strategy, unconventional though it sounds, is to tell stories.

Gayle cites the work of Nobel laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman in distinguishing between two types of thinking: System 1, which are the nearly instinctive, fast, prejudiced thoughts, like, “I am seeing accurately”; and System 2, which involves slow, “deliberative thinking”-often as a result of encountering contradictory beliefs.

An example is a simple optical illusion:The three lines are exactly the same length, but we are nearly powerless to see them as such. Once told that our perception can’t be trusted, we must investigate the claim; measure each line. But without a reason to doubt the perception, no intellectual reflection seems needed. Encountering contradictions and paradoxes leads to honest reflection, and a novel realization: (in this example) our trusted senses can fail us from time to time.Another example is Aesop’s parable of the tortoise and the hare. When told that a tortoise beat a hare in a race, we scoff, incredulous. But when we hear the story of the hare’s excessive pride and the tortoise’s slow, steadfast dedication, we are forced to reflect; we can reach a new outlook on competition. Shall we recite? “Slow and steady wins the race.”

We can clearly move from System 1 to System 2 when faced with simple problems, like the examples above, but Gayle wants to see if the same technique will work for more complex, scientific problems-the energy crisis, pollution, water use, and so forth. Gayle speculates that in these situations, the move from 1 to 2 is inhibited by complexity and fear. But perhaps presenting them in a simplified, counterintuitive parable will defeat the all too common negative vision of the future, engender positive and creative reflection, and-ideally-result in new approaches or solutions.

But he’s not tackling the complex problems just yet. He’s just trying to see if stories can indeed positively alter people’s outlooks on the future.

Gayle intends to do so by telling a story he made up called “How the Asteroid Saved Mankind” in three different formats: a short, illustrated parable; a video; and a longer, detailed examination. The story is counterintuitive (people tend to fear asteroids) and feels exaggerated, like the tortoise and the hare, but plays on people’s positive conceptions of space exploration: It will tout asteroids as our salvation. In the future (so the beta-version of the story goes), asteroid mining will be inexpensive and will provide “enough resources to build space-based solar arrays,” which will then give us enough energy to “actively sequester carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere faster than we added it,” Gayle says. Ideally, “creating a positive narrative alters how people view these complex problems.”

Now, he’s seeking $8,000 through the Rockethub-Popular Science #CrowdGrant Challenge. That would enable him to create all three versions of the story and also to experiment with them, he says. Gayle would survey people on their views of the future (what the world will be like in 10, 20, and 50 years; their level of excitement for having and raising children; etc.), then split those people into three groups. One group is the control and gets no story, one gets the parable, and the last watches the video. After, they’re all presented with the detailed, data-filled examination, and surveyed once more. Several months later, they’re surveyed a final time to see if and how their sentiments about the future changed.

The project recently broke 20 percent of its funding goal. If Gayle gets full funding and his results are promising, he hopes to apply the technique to other problems, such as “personal health, food production, water use,” and more, he says. To help him reach his goal, go here. And for more on the Rockethub-Popular Science #CrowdGrant Challenge, go here.


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