A few months ago, my teenage daughter and I went to see a lecture by Stephen Hawking at Oxford’s Mathematical Institute. The event had been postponed once because he was unwell; I worried that his body might finally give out, albeit five decades later than doctors had expected. Yet a new date was set and Hawking duly arrived, as if from another world, to deliver a spellbinding talk in his distinctive synthetic voice.
I had given a lecture myself at the same venue earlier, striking a pessimistic tone: it was easy to pollute the stream of conversation about science and statistics, I said, and simply intoning the facts would not dispel misinformation. Hawking, who died this week, went some way to restoring my hope. He showed that it was possible to communicate difficult ideas, if you went about it in the right way.
What was his secret? He acknowledged that his disability attracted the spotlight, but there was much more going on than the spectacle of a brilliant mind in a malfunctioning body.
First, he did not patronise his audience: presenting the most complicated ideas was a sign that he respected our intelligence. If we did not grasp everything, we would still be better off for having tried.
“I know the book is difficult,” he commented after his A Brief History of Time (UK) (US) had become a bestseller. “It does not matter too much if people can’t follow all the arguments. They can still get the flavour of the intellectual quest.”
That instinct was right. His talk demanded concentration. Most of it was beyond my daughter. Much of it was beyond me. Then Hawking would crack a joke about hairy black holes, and the audience would all be back on the same page, laughing, and ready for another attempt to scale the intellectual heights.
Second, he was immensely curious. “My goal is simple, “ he said. “It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.”
That sort of curiosity is contagious. It makes us want to join his hunt for answers, rather than passively receiving (or rejecting) information from an expert who claims to know them already.
The third quality followed from the first two: unlike some public intellectuals, Hawking was not very interested in conflict for the sake of it. The economist Paul Krugman and the biologist Richard Dawkins are instructive contrasts to Hawking: both are brilliant communicators, but they often present their ideas as a battle between good and evil, wisdom and stupidity.
When you have a noble cause it can be tempting to pursue it in an antagonistic way: Economy, a charity that aims to improve economics literacy, has been fundraising with an endorsement from writer George Monbiot saying that economists are “a pox on the planet”.
These insults seem to work, at first. If you call out your opponents as fools, knaves, or even transmissible diseases, you enthuse your own supporters. But you will win few new converts when every issue becomes a matter of tribal loyalty.
We humans are social creatures. Given a choice between being right on a partisan question (abortion, guns, Brexit, globalisation, climate change) and having mistaken views that our friends and neighbours support, we would rather be wrong and stay in the tribe. This becomes clear in surveys of views on climate change: college-educated Republicans and Democrats are further apart on the topic than those who are less educated.
If our goal is to persuade, the curiosity-driven approach works better than the conflict-driven one: the evidence suggests that curious people are less subject to the temptations of partisanship. When the national conversation becomes polarised, we need to encourage curiosity about how things work rather than them-and-us tribalism.
Hawking, of course, did have robust political views. He criticised the UK health secretary Jeremy Hunt for cherry-picking evidence on the National Health Service and spoke out against Brexit. But after the referendum went the other way, he continued to argue in favour of mutual understanding and solving problems together, rather than dismissing voters as ignorant.
If experts want to persuade us to wrap our minds around a complex issue, they need to get us to abandon our cynicism towards unwelcome information. It does no harm to be the most recognisable scientist on the planet, but Hawking also understood that insults do not work. Instead, he treated us with respect and fired our enthusiasm.
Towards the end of his lecture, after a difficult discussion of quantum effects near the boundary of a black hole, Hawking offered a simpler idea: “If you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up. There is a way out.”
It was a message any teenager could hold on to. I sat next to my daughter and thought about how Hawking had lived such a rich life under the burden of an apparently unbeatable illness.
We have been told that people have had enough of experts. That is true for some experts. It wasn’t true for Stephen Hawking.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 16 March 2018.