… one last, brief set of thoughts for scientists on the eve of tomorrow’s March for Science and Earth Day.
This post is triggered by an article by Tim Requarth in Slate (a tip of the hat to Fred Carr, a former AMS president, who caught the article and forwarded the link along). The article focuses on scientists’ obsessive infatuation with the knowledge-deficit approach to argument – that “if the public knew what we know about ________ (fill in the blank; climate change is a popular choice here), they wouldn’t be thinking what they’re thinking or doing what they’re doing…”
Mr. Requarth’s article merits reading (and re-reading) in its entirety, but a brief excerpt:
“…Many scientists hope that by doing a better job of explaining science, they can move the needle toward scientific consensus on politically charged issues. As recent studies from Michigan State University found, scientists’ top reason for engaging the public is to inform and defend [emphasis added] science from misinformation.
It’s an admirable goal, but almost certainly destined to fail. This is because the way most scientists think about science communication—that just explaining the real science better will help—is plain wrong. In fact, it’s so wrong that it may have the opposite effect of what they’re trying to achieve…”
The takeaway is clear: Increasing science literacy alone won’t change minds. In fact, well-meaning attempts by scientists to inform the public might even backfire. Presenting facts that conflict with an individual’s worldview, it turns out, can cause people to dig in further. Psychologists, aptly, dubbed this the “backfire effect.”
He then concludes:
There’s a certain irony that scientists, of all people, know so little about, well, the science of science communication…
Randy Olson captures this same set of ideas in his remarkable book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style. He speaks in (often earthy) language about the importance of appealing to the gut rather than the head. A considerably longer read, but still worth your time.
Still unconvinced? Coca Cola provides a cautionary tale, from another realm.
You could argue that little in all this is actually new – that the ancient Greek rhetoricians already saw it this way, two thousand years or so ago, offering variants on this message:
First win the audience; then win the argument.
So enjoy Saturday’s March for Science: outdoors in spring weather, with friends, part of a huge crowd, looking and laughing at clever placards and great tee shirts, feeding off the energy of the group, tweeting and messaging – what’s not to like? But try your best throughout the day to keep your talk pro-science and positive, not political and negative. And when the March is over, reflect on the serious business ahead for science. We have to win the hearts and minds of the audience – political leaders and the public – before winning any argument. In a word, we have to (respectfully) court them.
The bad news? After digging ourselves in a hole for the past few decades on contentious issues ranging from vaccination to climate change by acting in full-scold mode, such courtship will take a while.
The good news? “Giving the facts,” as we’ve done for years, but now with an admixture of courtship thrown in? (Using the five languages of love) Acts of service? Gifts? Words of affirmation? Quality time? Physical touch (maybe a bit problematic; let’s replace that with face-to-face)? All that not only promises to be more effective; it looks to be a lot more fun.
 Mr. Kahan has so much wisdom to offer, I didn’t want to pick and choose. Follow the link and make your own selection of starting point.