Education & Sci Comm

Of troublemakers, priorities, and forgotten battles worth fighting

Science communicators expend a lot of energy on account of the opposition to important (but publicly controversial) scientific topics like evolution and climate change. Misinformation is debunked. Grumbles about Fox News, the Daily Mail, or [insert politician here] build to a low roar of background frustration. The questions are obvious. “Why do these people think that??” “How can we get through to them?” “How do we keep them from turning our comment threads to toxic waste dumps?”

And so we study them. The research on the psychology that ties people to these ideas is extensive (and fascinating). Lots of effort goes into thinking about what to do about it- communication strategies that navigate the minefield of cultural filters. With such worthy “foes”, it’s easy to turn your back to allies. But there are problems in those ranks, as well. I’m not talking about arguments over whether the political left is as “anti-science” as the right, and I’m not advocating some “scientific relativism” about us all being biased brains in vats. (No, Neo.) I just keep thinking: “What about the people who are on the right side for the wrong reasons?”

We draw a line based on a position (like acceptance of anthropogenic climate change) and assume that being on one side of that line means a person has reasoned poorly while being on the other side means they’ve reasoned well. While it’s pretty difficult for someone to correctly reason their way to rejecting climate change, it’s quite easy for someone to incorrectly reason their way to accepting it. This is obvious- just as “conservative” (for lack of better descriptors) cultural connections can lead someone away from the best science, “liberal” cultural connections can lead them toward it. Those are stories about culture, not science.

So what? Isn’t this a bit like worrying that some of NPR’s donors might only have done it for the sweet, sweet tote bag? I think that dismissing this fact would be pretty short-sighted. Climate change is far from the only issue for which it’s important that people recognize what science has to say. The person who accepts climate change only because they hate everything that Republicans say is ill-prepared to judge the next topic that comes down the pike. (Or to take a smart position on genetically modified foods or the safety and importance of vaccines.)

It’s worse than failing to “correct” them. When they hear the other side labeled as “anti-science”, they implicitly pat themselves on the back for being “pro-science”. They’ll still claim that mantle when they make a decision on another issue, even if they unwittingly side against the science.

If people need critical thinking skills and the ability to ferret out scientific knowledge through all the noise, bad habits shouldn’t be reinforced. Creating a science-tuned society is no small task- we can afford to leave no stone unturned.

So despite complaints that it does little to sway doubters, preaching to the choir is an integral part of science communication. Sure the choir listens to the preacher, but don’t forget that they learn something, too. If your goal is broader than “get people to join the choir”, you’ll see that’s not necessarily time wasted.

That broader goal is to educate and instill some “sci-sense”. Some strategies will be more effective than others, but discussion of this sometimes gets lost in the focus on more adversarial pursuits. (The squeaky wheels that grind our gears get all the grease?) The best solutions are probably just the things that everyone recognizes as “good science communication”, but it might still be worth thinking about more often- even if it’s just to assuage guilt from preaching to the choir. Public opinion polls of acceptance/rejection are not the only metric of progress.

I would love to hear thoughts on ways people think about this.


2 thoughts on “Of troublemakers, priorities, and forgotten battles worth fighting

  1. Did nobody comment on this yet?

    Not that I have any answers, but I sure ask myself the same questions often. Particularly as I’m not a scientist, I’m more ‘in the choir’ trying to learn (and, often, trying to rephrase what I read from the scientists in words aimed at the national average reading level (reading around 5th grade level for science topics I think, 7th grade for general English). And, of course, awaiting correction of those efforts from real scientists.


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