Thanks for the Facts. Now Sell Them.

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook - By Matthew C. Nis­bet and Chris Mooney

If the de­fend­ers of evo­lu­tion wanted to give their cre­ation­ist ad­ver­saries a boost, it’s hard to see how they could do bet­ter than Richard Dawkins, the famed Ox­ford sci­en­tist who had a best­seller with “The God Delu­sion.” Dawkins, who rose to fame with his lu­cid ex­po­si­tions of evo­lu­tion in such books as “The Self­ish Gene,” has never gone easy on re­li­gion. But re­cently he has ramped up his athe­ist mes­sage, fur­ther mix­ing his de­fense of evo­lu­tion with his at­tack on be­lief.

Leave aside for a mo­ment the va­lid­ity of Dawkins’s ar­gu­ments against re­li­gion. The fact re­mains: The pub­lic can­not be ex­pected to dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween his ad­vo­cacy of evo­lu­tion and his athe­ism. More than 80 per­cent of Amer­i­cans be­lieve in God, af­ter all, and many fear that teach­ing evo­lu­tion in our schools could un­der­mine the be­lief sys­tem they con­sider the foun­da­tion of moral­ity. Dawkins not only re­in­forces and val­i­dates such fears — base­less though they may be — but lends them an ex­cla­ma­tion point.

We agree with Dawkins on evo­lu­tion and ad­mire his books, so we don’t en­joy sin­gling him out. But he stands as a par­tic­u­larly stark ex­am­ple of sci­en­tists’ fail­ure to ex­plain hot-but­ton is­sues, such as global warm­ing and evo­lu­tion, to a wary pub­lic.

Sci­en­tists ex­cel at re­search; cre­at­ing knowl­edge is their forte. But pre­sent­ing this knowl­edge to the pub­lic is some­thing else al­to­gether. It’s here that sci­en­tists and their al­lies are stum­bling in our in­for­ma­tion-over­loaded so­ci­ety — even as sci­en­tific in­for­ma­tion it­self is be­ing yanked to cen­ter stage in high-profile de­bates.

Sci­en­tists have tra­di­tion­ally com­mu­ni­cated with the rest of us by in­un­dat­ing the pub­lic with facts; but data dumps of­ten don’t work. Peo­ple gen­er­ally make up their minds by study­ing more sub­tle, less ra­tio­nal fac­tors. In 2000 Amer­i­cans didn’t pore over ex­pla­na­tions of Pres­i­dent Bush’s poli­cies; they asked whether he was the kind of guy they wanted to have a beer with.

So in to­day’s Amer­ica, like it or not, those seek­ing a broader pub­lic ac­cep­tance of science must re­think their strate­gies for con­vey­ing knowl­edge. Es­pe­cially on di­vi­sive is­sues, sci­en­tists should pack­age their re­search to res­onate with spe­cific seg­ments of the pub­lic. Data dump­ing — about, say, the tech­ni­cal de­tails of em­bry­ol­ogy — is dull and off-putting to most peo­ple. And the Dawkins-in­spired “science vs. re­li­gion” way of view­ing things alien­ates those with strong re­li­gious con­vic­tions. Do sci­en­tists re­ally have to por­tray their knowl­edge as a threat to the pub­lic’s be­liefs? Can’t science and re­li­gion just get along? A “science and re­li­gion co­ex­is­tence” mes­sage con­veyed by church lead­ers or by sci­en­tists who have rec­on­ciled the two in their own lives might con­vince even many de­vout Chris­tians that evo­lu­tion is no real threat to faith.

We made a sim­i­lar ar­gu­ment in a re­cent com­men­tary ar­ti­cle pub­lished by the jour­nal Science. While many agreed with our per­spec­tive, some took a more crit­i­cal tone. In­deed, those most piqued by our ar­gu­ment tended (like Dawkins) to be strong de­fend­ers of evo­lu­tion who are also crit­i­cal of re­li­gious be­lief.

Paul Zachary “PZ” My­ers, a bi­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Min­nesota at Mor­ris, wrote on his blog, Pharyn­gula, that if he took our ad­vice, “I’d end up giv­ing fluff talks that play up eco­nomic ad­van­tages and how evo­lu­tion con­trib­utes to medicine . . . and I’d never talk about mech­a­nisms and ev­i­dence again. That sounds like a for­mula for dis­as­ter to me — it turns sci­en­tists into guys with suits who have opin­ions, and puts us in com­pe­ti­tion with lawyers and bu­reau­crats in the me­dia.” My­ers also ac­cused us of ap­peas­ing re­li­gion.

Yet he misses the point. There will al­ways be a small au­di­ence of science en­thu­si­asts who have a deep in­ter­est in the “mech­a­nisms and ev­i­dence” of evo­lu­tion, just as there will al­ways be an au­di­ence for crit­i­cism of re­li­gion. But th­ese mes­sages are un­likely to reach a wider pub­lic, and even if they do they will prob­a­bly be ig­nored or, in the case of athe­is­tic at­tacks on re­li­gion, back­fire.

We’re not say­ing that sci­en­tists and their al­lies should “spin” in­for­ma­tion; do­ing that would only harm their cred­i­bil­ity. But dis­cussing is­sues in new ways and with new mes­sen­gers can be ac­com­plished with­out dis­tort­ing the un­der­ly­ing science. Good com­mu­ni­ca­tion is by its very na­ture in­for­ma­tive rather than mis­lead­ing. Mak­ing com­pli­cated is­sues per­son­ally mean­ing­ful will ac­ti­vate pub­lic sup­port much more ef­fec­tively than blind­ing peo­ple with science.

Global warm­ing is an­other is­sue on which sci­en­tists con­tin­u­ally fail to reach key seg­ments of the pub­lic. The real in­con­ve­nient truth here is that sci­en­tists aren’t do­ing a good job of pack­ag­ing what they know. No mat­ter how solid the science gets, there re­main “two Amer­i­cas” on the sub­ject: A strong ma­jor­ity of Repub­li­cans dis­count the science and the is­sue’s ur­gency, while an over­whelm­ing num­ber of Democrats be­lieve the op­po­site. Once again, the facts aren’t driv­ing opin­ions here. In­stead, se­lec­tive in­ter­pre­ta­tions — de­liv­ered via frag­mented me­dia and res­onat­ing with the pub­lic’s par­ti­san prej­u­dices — are win­ning out.

Thus, de­spite ever-in­creas­ing sci­en­tific con­sen­sus, prom­i­nent GOP lead­ers such as Sen. James M. In­hofe of Oklahoma still use con­ser­va­tive me­dia out­lets to de­scribe cli­mate science as too “un­cer­tain” to jus­tify ac­tion. If sci­en­tists and their de­fend­ers seek to an­swer such charges by ex­plain­ing how much we know, they be­come en­meshed in the tech­ni­cal de­tails (for in­stance, does cli­mate change re­ally con­trib­ute to more in­tense hur­ri­canes?). And this only cre­ates new op­por­tu­ni­ties for In­hofe and his flat-earth friends to sow doubt.

So once again, sci­en­tists and their al­lies would be bet­ter off shift­ing their em­pha­sis, as well as the mes­sen­ger. For ex­am­ple, church lead­ers can speak to the evan­gel­i­cal com­mu­nity about the ne­ces­sity of en­vi­ron­men­tal stew­ard­ship (a mes­sage that’s al­ready be­ing de­liv­ered from some pul­pits), even as busi­ness lead­ers can speak to fis­cally ori­ented con­ser­va­tives about the eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties there for the pluck­ing if Congress passes a sys­tem for trad­ing car­bon diox­ide emis­sion cred­its.

In this re­gard, one suc­cess story has come in the de­bate over hu­man em­bry­onic stem cells, a lead­ing ex­am­ple of how sci­en­tists can ef­fec­tively en­gage the pub­lic on con­tro­ver­sial find­ings. In the weeks fol­low­ing Bush’s 2001 com­pro­mise de­ci­sion on stem cell re­search fund­ing, more than 60 per­cent of the pub­lic sup­ported the pres­i­dent’s pol­icy. But six years later, pub­lic opin­ion has shifted. In news cov­er­age and cam­paigns, fund­ing ad­vo­cates have em­pha­sized not the tech­ni­cal de­tails of the re­search but the prom­ise of new ther­a­pies and the re­sul­tant po­ten­tial for eco­nomic growth. This strat­egy has helped spur leg­is­la­tion that would over­turn the pres­i­dent’s pol­icy; the latest bill passed in the Se­nate last week (though not by enough votes to over­turn an ex­pected veto).

Here again, a del­i­cate bal­ance is re­quired. Any re­cast­ing of an is­sue needs to re­main true to the un­der­ly­ing science. As ef­fec­tive as the “hope for cures” mes­sage has been, some ad­vo­cates have gone too far in their claims about po­ten­tial ad­vances.

Thank­fully, sci­en­tists seem in­creas­ingly aware of the need to con­vey their knowl­edge bet­ter. There is even a bill in Congress that would al­lo­cate fund­ing to the Na­tional Science Foun­da­tion to train sci­en­tists to be­come bet­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tors. That’s a start, but sci­en­tists must rec­og­nize that on hot-but­ton is­sues — even sci­en­tific ones — knowl­edge alone is rarely enough to win po­lit­i­cal ar­gu­ments, change gov­ern­ment poli­cies or in­flu­ence pub­lic opin­ion. Sim­ply put, the me­dia, pol­i­cy­mak­ers and mem­bers of the pub­lic con­sume sci­en­tific in­for­ma­tion in a vastly dif­fer­ent way than the sci­en­tists who gen­er­ate it. If sci­en­tists don’t learn how to cope in this of­ten be­wil­der­ing en­vi­ron­ment, they will be ced­ing their abil­ity to con­trib­ute to the fu­ture of our na­tion. nis­betmc@gmail.com moonecc@gmail.com

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