An opinion editorial did the rounds a couple of months ago of an engineer disagreeing – robustly, shall we say – with a proposed anti-mining opponent. The author was roundly cheered by everyone sharing the piece– he sure put that idiot in their place!
Scientists love to argue. Cutting through the bullshit and getting to the truth of the matter is pretty much the job description. So it’s not really surprising scientists and science supporters frequently take on those who dabble in anti-mining or deny climate change, or who oppose vaccinations or genetically modified food.
It makes sense. You’ve got a population that is – on the whole – not scientifically literate, and you want to persuade them that they should be doing or thinking a and b (but not c) so that they/you/their children can have a better life.
Last week, I watched another engineer performing a smackdown on an opponent. He brought graphs! Knockout blow.
And yet … he left me cold.
Is this really what science communication is all about?
Is this informing, changing minds, winning people over to a better, brighter future?
I doubt it somehow.
There are a couple of things here. And I don’t think it’s as simple as people rejecting science.
First, people don’t like being told what to do or how to think. People have had enough of the experts.
We rely on engineers, research and environmental scientists to build things, protect the environment, make us better and on financial planners to help us invest. We expect scientists to research new cures for disease, or simply to find out how things work.
But when these experts tell us how to live our lives – or even worse, what to think – something rebels. Especially when there is even the merest whiff of controversy or uncertainty.
Back in your box, we say, and stick to what you’re good at.
Which brings us to the second point.
On the whole, I don’t think people who object to mines, infrastructure development vaccines, GMOs or climate change are at heart anti-science. Some are, for sure, and these are the dangerous ones. But most people simply want to know that someone is listening, that someone is taking their worries seriously; that someone cares for them.
It’s more about who we are and our relationships than about what is right or true.
This is why, when you simply deliver data at a community meeting, you run the risk of appearing supercilious and judgmental. Even – especially – if you’re actually right.
People want to feel wanted and loved. That there is someone who will listen to them. To feel part of a family.
How many science communicators do you know who take the time to listen to their audience? Who are willing to step outside their cozy little bubble and make an effort to reach people where they are, where they are confused and hurting; where they need?
Atul Gawande in a recent article for the New Yorker says that the scientist’s role is to present “the true facts of good science” and expose the “bad science tactics that are being used to mislead people”. But that’s only part of the story and is closing the barn door too late.
Tellingly, Gawande refers to the ‘scientific community’; and he’s absolutely right. Most science communication isn’t about persuading people; it’s self-affirmation for those already on the inside. Look at us, it says, aren’t we clever? We are exclusive, we are a gang, we are family.
That’s not communication. It’s not changing minds and it’s certainly not winning hearts and minds.