Nicolas Cage, a Long Lost Vampire or Just a Famous Dude: How to Talk About Controversial Topics

With movies like Twilight, Vampire Diaries, and Interview with the Vampire elevating vampires to celebrity status, it’s time for the scientific community to embrace them and perhaps vampires can help explain the stuff of science and the science of stuff. 

It was 2012 when some began pegging the beloved actor Nicolas Cage as a vampire by certain groups of people because of an 1870 era picture. It showed a Cage look-a-like. After months of debate, the question remains unanswered: How could Cage be alive so many years later? Is this picture proof that he’s a vampire?  

 

N Cage
Nicolas Cage and a photo from 1870 with a dude who looks just like him or IS him (Source: The Hollywood Reporter)

 

Controversial topics like this are a part of scientific and public discussions all the time and while scientists focus on facts and figures to make their points, at times they fail to gain the trust of the public. There are different ways to approach the public when communicating science, and for now, we’ll lean on our vaunted vampire, Prof. Van Helsing to help.

Van Helsing is not your average blood-sucking vampire, but a Harvard-educated vampirologist. He has dedicated centuries of his life studying the habits of these occasionally friendly night creatures, their post-mortem-living biology, and their unusual allergies and capabilities.They get septic shock by consuming garlic and turn into bats upon meeting their crush. With his long silver hair, his round hippie sunglasses, and eagle-shaped nose, you might say he’s the Neil deGrasse Tyson of vampirology.

We asked Van Helsing to tell us about his strategies to talk to the public about a controversy such as The Cage vampire theory. He identified three main strategies:

  1. He has a YouTube channel where he discusses the evidence against Cage being a vampire and addresses the comments about the controversy.
  2. He spends two hours a week in a museum to answer people’s questions about vampires. When Nicolas Cage comes up, he gets to hear what the audience thinks and they can have a conversation about the topic.
  3. He has a “citizen science” program where he asks people to join him in identifying different traits of vampires. This is a good opportunity for the public to evaluate the evidence of the Cage vampire theory.

Knowledge Deficit Model

Growing up, Van Helsing was a huge fan of the science show Smart Time with Dr. Acula. He learned a lot about himself and became curious about questions he had never considered. He wanted to be just like Dr. Acula. The show became very famous and inspired many teenagers to enter the field of vampirology.

Platforms such as YouTube, TV shows, books, and lectures are one-way communication strategies that help scientists share knowledge with their audience. They can reach a great number of people. The scientist doesn’t have to engage directly with the audience and prepare for unexpected questions. People can reach these materials at any time and use them differently.

Van Helsing started his own Youtube channel and now has a growing audience. The Cage theory is a recurring topic, so he keeps up with the banter, and tries to address the most frequent questions and beliefs. While the videos help him reach an extensive audience, this one-way communication technique can pose problems.

“I talked about different evidence, like if he’s a vampire, why is there a picture of him?! I describe why vampires can’t appear in pictures or talk about the fact that he has been spotted multiple times in pure daylight, which should have turned him into dust if he was a vampire. You’d think that’s enough to prove my point, and it is for some people, but there are always others who  leave comments like, ‘What if he’s a mutant vampire’….”

Over time, studies have shown that simply providing information to people doesn’t make them change their minds. What we hold as truth also is connected to our identity. So, let’s say I belong to a group called the Followers of the Cage, who are avid believers in the eternal life of Cage. Then it would be harder for me to accept the facts supporting his not being a vampire. Accepting those facts would mean I’ve lost a part of my identity.

So, a one-way communication provides information and leaves little space for a conversation. It’s difficult to listen to the audience, evaluate their knowledge gap and their understanding of the information. To include the audience in the conversation, we need a two-way model of communication.

Engagement Model

While Van Helsing loves his channel, he believes that nothing feels better than having a face-to-face talk with people about vampirology. Especially when younger kids come to him and are excited to see a “real scientist.”

The latest research on effective science communication advocates for engaging the public in conversations and helping them be an active part of scientific discussions. The scientist can evaluate their knowledge and attributes, such as age, education, and interests, and modify their talks accordingly. In addition, scientists can make sure the audience understands concepts and can address any vagueness immediately.

“In one of my talks, the Cage theory came up and I remember being a  bit anxious about how to address the issue. The woman who brought up the topic was actually very sweet and patient. I talked about the evidence out there and, she told me some counter-arguments. I didn’t try to attack her and we talked for a while about our favorite Cage movies and that Face/Off is one of my all-time favorites. I felt at the moment I couldn’t persuade her, but I could help her not hate scientists. Maybe next time when she sees more evidence, she will look at it with a more open mind.”

Being able to have a discussion, a moment of teaching and information sharing, rather than persuasion of the audience, helps scientists build trust and rapport. By showing warmth through being casual, using jokes, analogies, and stories, the scientist can establish trust with the audience. While scientists value building knowledge in their audience, building trust and interest are not prioritized as much.  

The engagement model also allows scientists to foster the audience’s curiosity by making them aware of their knowledge gap. If you think of curiosity, it’s essentially the realization that you don’t know something and now, you want to know the answer. So, Van Helsing starts asking, “Why do you think vampires can’t be captured in a picture?” People start answering, saying the flash has light and vampires can’t be exposed to light. Then the scientist gets to tell the audience about their misperception. “Actually, the real reason is that cameras capture souls, and vampires have no soul to be captured by the camera or a mirror.” This way not only scientists provide more information, they use the audience’s curiosity to engage their interest and improve their memory of the information.

But we all know learning by doing is one of the most effective ways to learn something new, which gets us to the participatory model of science communication.

Participatory Model

When there is too much information out there to be categorized, sometimes scientists need more help and they call on the public. Van Helsing believes this is a great educational opportunity. He has more than 10,000 pictures of different vampire breeds and is trying to understand the common trends between vampires. He does that by asking interested people to go through the database of images and identify all the features in the image. He later feeds that information to a program that can identify common features.

While doing these types of projects Van Helsing gets to teach volunteers about vampires’ biology, photosensitivity, canine teeth, pale skin, etc. This is also a good opportunity to bring up the Cage theory: “I ask people to go through the features of vampires and see if people like Cage could be a vampire or not. Being a part of the scientific process, they seem to have a better grasp of the scientific methodology and decision-making.”

The participatory model not only contributes to scientific discoveries but also trains science enthusiasts and even potential future scientists and helps citizens to become a part of the scientific community. But why does this all matter so much? Why does Van Helsing care about communicating his science and addressing controversies in different ways?

Why It Matters

Whether you like vampires or not, you need to know them. You need to learn how to live with them, take pictures of them, or ward them off with garlic and holy water. While becoming aware of the science of vampirology is Van Helsing’s main goal for outreach, it’s all there to help the public make informed decisions and vote for thoughtful policies.

Believing that Nicolas Cage is a vampire might be an amusing idea and if you’re a fan of his, a joyful one since Cage would be there for all generations to enjoy his acting. But wrong information leads to wrong decisions. Should we provide a vampire pension to all the individuals who appear on old pictures with no evidence of them being actual vampires? Should we provide them all with blood subsidies? Can Nicolas Cage represent the vampire community in the Senate and make laws that protect them while he’s not even a vampire?

Believing in conspiracies such as this and spreading them have consequences that can affect different groups of people or even the whole community. Imagine vampires losing their blood subsidies to non-vampires, who would be their next source of blood? Well…you.

*Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction, because..vampires…obviously. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental or a proof that our universe is controlled by our alien overlords.

References:

Dudo, A., & Besley, J. C. (2016). Scientists’ prioritization of communication objectives for public engagement. PloS one11(2), e0148867.

Fiske, S. T., & Dupree, C. (2014). Gaining trust as well as respect in communicating to motivated audiences about science topics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences111(Supplement 4), 13593-13597.

Kang, M. J., Hsu, M., Krajbich, I. M., Loewenstein, G., McClure, S. M., Wang, J. T. Y., & Camerer, C. F. (2009). The wick in the candle of learning: Epistemic curiosity activates reward circuitry and enhances memory. Psychological Science20(8), 963-973.

Lowenstein, G. (1994). `The Psychology of Curiosity: A Review and Reinterpretation.

Metcalfe, J. (2014, May). The theory needed to support science communication practice. In 13th International Public Communication of Science and Technology Conference (pp. 1-13).

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2017). Communicating science effectively: A research agenda. National Academies Press.

Wynne, B. (2006). Public engagement as a means of restoring public trust in science–hitting the notes, but missing the music?. Public Health Genomics9(3), 211-220.

 

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