Michio Kaku should be himself

Queensborough Community College CUNY, in their Presidential Lecture series, hosted in October 2009 a talk by Dr Michio Kaku entitled The World in 2030. There was a long subtitle which you will see at the beginning of the video but, given that Dr Kaku is a high-profile theoretical physicist and has fronted TV documentaries on the subject, I think we can see where this talk is going.

Kaku begins speaking at 5.34 after an introduction from Eduardo J. Marti. I am a little concerned with the noisiness of the audience. I hope it is going to settle down.

His opening is not original: it is not even the first time we’ve heard it on this blog. Christopher Monckton used it. I’m not complaining though: it’s a nice gag.

I think I do complain at what he says at 6:18. If I may paraphrase slightly he says, “I’m a physicist: we invented the laser”. It’s an implied false syllogism. It’s the equivalent of my saying, “I’m a rhetor: we taught Cicero how to make speeches”. We know that Dr Kako is brilliant in his field, but being phenomenally knowledgeable in one subject doesn’t necessarily mean that you are smarter than any reasonably well-read Joe in others. I feel we are being led towards that assumption here. It’s called sciolism and it makes me uneasy

Let us though turn to his forecasts for 2030, not forgetting that projections like this have a disastrous failure rate. As Niels Bohr observed,

Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.

Kaku tells us what the scientific leading edge is close to being capable of making, and then makes a leap of faith to assume that the market will want it. The market has always been more fickle than that. Very many years ago I was told a story that may be apocryphal. It concerns tomato soup. As we know, tomato soup is warm and thick and red and satisfying but doesn’t taste of tomatoes. A big manufacturer of food products developed a tomato soup that did taste of tomatoes and then tested it with consumer panels. They gave it the thumbs down. They agreed that this new product tasted of tomatoes, but it didn’t taste like tomato soup. Leading edges can easily become bleeding edges.

Such future projections then should not be taken too seriously. To be fair, Kaku treats the subject light-heartedly, but amusing diversions have legs for ten minutes at best. He pushes this for three quarters of an hour, and I don’t think it holds up.

One problem is his delivery. It is slick and professional; but it is distinctly a performance. The Holy Grail of holding your audience’s attention is to make each person there believe that you are speaking personally to them. Like the real Holy Grail it may be an unattainable goal, but it should be your target. One way of getting closer to that target is to speak in a tone that could be perceived as one you would use when speaking to your family. I don’t think he speaks to his wife and children like that. This is Speech Mode which is like a costume a speaker dons, and which causes an invisible screen to separate him from his audience. He should dare to be himself.

He closes with a joke about Einstein and his chauffeur. It rather reflects what I have been saying. If Kaku had a chauffeur who had heard this speech often enough, that chauffeur could deliver it for him. All he’d need to do is don the costume.

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