Allen So―a friend of mine―commented on someone’s Facebook discussion that Richard Dawkins is is the most influential living biologist. I’ll be honest, that didn’t seem right. Richard Dawkins is vocal and very famous, but he also sort of exists in an echo chamber: creationists didn’t pick up The Selfish Gene and sincerely read it; readers were mostly already interested in science or biology and accepted evolution. So we tried to pin down exactly what he meant by “influential”. The result was a proto-metric for being influential and that helped me understand how to be influential.
Allen seemed to mean “famous”. That’s a very different word to influential, with a very different meaning. And I’d argue that David Attenborough is more famous than Dawkins. Dawkins can be harsh to listen to and may admit to being turned off by what he says (including my stepdad, a former student of Dawkins, who describes him as arrogant and pompous but had no idea he had become famous for his atheism). Attenborough, by contrast, is affable, friendly and makes content which is more consumable and enjoyable.
I am not saying that I don’t enjoy Dawkins’ books and interviews, because I do, but I understand that I am a part of his echo chamber. Attenborough’s documentaries on the BBC are globally famous and I haven’t found anyone who doesn’t like at least one documentary or Attenborough himself (even if it is just for awful impressions of his voice).
But I disagree with Allen’s definition of “influential”. Chris Brogan and Juliet Stanwell Smith probably best sum up my idea of influence in their book The Impact Equation: they’ve written is as
Impact = contrast x (reach + exposure + articulation + trust + echo)
They use the word impact (to be more influential), but I think in this context influence is a suitable synonym. This is perhaps more specific than I have thought needed, but all the right elements are there. I’ll take just a moment to discuss them and what they mean to my hobby: blogging. I’m not ashamed to admit that I want more followers, shares and likes as vapid as all that is.
Contrast is the most interesting one. Influences someone to agree with something they are already confident about is no influence at all: if you’d tried nothing, nothing would be different. To influence things, you must want something different, so that you can effect change. This is why I like getting atheist followers, but delight in getting religious ones.
Reach and Exposure are very similar, but not quite the same. The number of followers I have is my reach: it’s the potential size of an audience. My local newspaper has my entire county in its reach, this blog has a reach of approximately 350 people. Exposure is about how often you can direct readership. To increase that, you need catchy titles (I’ve tried to spice up this title, inspired by clickbait; compare it to me other titles) and interesting pictures. All your reach sees in the shortened blurb, they have to open the post before it is counted as exposure.
Articulation is about the clarity of your writing, directness and relevance. I cut out a short story about Allen’s Facebook argument with a creationist, as well as his professional and academic bio because it wasn’t relevant to what I wanted to write. My writing is more direct for that.
Trust is paramount. I have read some very direct and well written religious blogs that, when fact checked, didn’t hold up. But there’s something a little more intangible about being trustworthy as well: sincerity. The Food Babe, for example, talks absolute nonsense a lot of the time. But she manages to write passionately and sincerely so her audience trusts her because she seems to care. She’s demonstrably wrong, but still acquires a lot of trust.
Echo is not, as it first seems, about likes and shares. It’s about developing an accord on an emotional level. I have unfollowed atheist bloggers because their writing somehow alienates me from their topic. You need your message to echo in the mind of each individual reader, make it worthy of their thought. There are cheap tricks to do this, like making Pokemon analogies which, for my generation, is suddenly evoking childhood feelings which makes the post echo in my mind. The more mature way of doing it is, again, about sincerity.
So, for one to be influential, they must have an idea that is novel (contrast), effects change (trust and echo) in a large number of people (reach and exposure). I really do not think Dawkins fits the criteria for the most influential. The Selfish Gene and meme theory are solely academic ideas and as such the most change they can effect is academic; it feeds back into the university teaching. That immediately limits the audience you have as only people who describe themselves as academics or intellectuals will really care. The God Delusion fails to be properly influential because it alienates a lot of religious readers instead of creating an echo or engender trust.
Francis Compton died in 2004, and Francis Crick died in 2008, but James Watson is still alive and his work has been extraordinarily influential. He is the still-living father of genetics and the ability of nucleic acids to hold information. All of genetics was born from a small collection of people, leading to the academic discipline of genetics, mapping the human and Neanderthal genomes, medical advancement and much more. Watson’s work has a global reach, being part of exam curriculums and the foundation of a lot of work in hospitals. It’s not only people who believe it that have Watson’s ideas successfully influence them, for the work of doctors based on Watson’s work has changed lives. Watson, despite enjoying very little name recognition, is much more influential than Dawkins.
But this still doesn’t seem like enough. I am reminded of Neil deGrasse Tyson. He’s not a biologist, but the nature of his influence is different and worthy of a look. Tyson is famously passionate and articulate, which means him trustworthy and creates an echo in his audience. These traits, plus his academic success (and a lot of luck, I don’t doubt), have extended his audience not only to the Hayden Planetarium, but to the US Government. Tyson works on the President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy, influencing government decisions (particularly arguing to expand funding to NASA). This gave me the idea of looking for living influential biologists who are influential in ways periphery to direct academic biology.
And from there, without question (I would think) we get to the the most influential biologist on the planet: Dr Margaret Chen. She is the Director-General of WHO (my car is also her namesake, because the licence ends is WHO, I named my car after her). Okay, Dr Chen enjoys basically no name recognition globally, her efforts are the most influential I can think of: she has meant the difference between life and death for millions of people, which is undoubtedly as much contrast as one can ever get; the policies and procedures she has overseen are in place around the world with billions of people under her care to some degree and the organisation she oversees is sincerely trusted by governments across the world