Debating Over the Holidays? Channel Frank Oppenheimer, Not Robert Oppenheimer.

The state of the universe.
Dec. 21 2012 4:14 PM

Persuasion vs. Coercion at the Holiday Table

Pro tips on communication strategies from Frank and Robert Oppenheimer.

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It’s a chance that’s lost every time authorities (especially scientists) try to tell people how to eat, drive, spend money, raise their kids without explaining why—the evidence and reasoning, in other words, that persuaded them. Instead, it’s like a parent telling a child: “Because I said so!” Nothing lasting is passed on.

A young scientist who worked with Frank for years told me this was the most important lesson he learned from his mentor: If he found himself resorting to rewards or punishments to get his employees to do things, he knew he hadn’t been a very good boss.

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Coercion becomes immoral, Frank thought, when it begins to permeate a society to the extent that understanding becomes undervalued. And he saw this happening everywhere.

It’s both trite and true to say that we live in dangerous, complex, times. Getting through them safely will require every good idea, every innovation, every approach to figuring things out, never giving up, no matter how daunting the task. “If we stop trying to understand things,” Frank liked to say, “we’ll all be sunk.”

And what better place to start than at holiday gatherings? Rather than gird ourselves for silent disagreement or endless loud arguments, why not try to gather evidence to support our cause? It isn’t easy these days when relatives who watch Fox News have a difference set of facts to work with than followers of MSNBC. But we’re going to have to try. A victory for Obama didn’t change the minds of those who went for Romney—nearly half the voting population.

People at exhibits at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, Calif.
People at exhibits at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, Calif.

Courtesy Exploratorium.

Ultimately, Frank went on to build what he called a “museum of awareness” in San Francisco, a museum, really, of persuasion. He called it an Exploratorium so it wouldn’t sound like “museum,” where experts tell visitors what they should know; it was (and is) more like a playground packed with sophisticated scientific toys meant to be poked, prodded, pushed, pulled, listen to, yelled at, spun around, climbed on, fiddled with, sung to, clapped at, watched with wonder. It’s a place for people to experience what it feels like to really discover something.  

One of Frank’s favorite stories was about the woman who’d spent the day there, then went home and wired a lamp. There is nothing in the Exploratorium that tells you how to wire a lamp. The woman had merely gotten a taste of that great feeling that comes from figuring it out for yourself. Which is ultimately what persuasion is about.

We’re persuaded when we feel we’ve understood something well enough to make up our own minds. And that makes all of us smarter, better people, no matter what side of the issues (or the table) we’re on.

K.C. Cole is the author, most recently, of Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and His Astonishing Exploratorium and eight other nonfiction books, most featured on her website, www.kccole.com. She's currently a professor at USC's Annenberg School of Journalism.