The topic of science denial comes up with some frequency in the research community. There are the “anti-vaxxers,” who either think vaccines are ineffective or cause other conditions. There are the “climate change deniers,” who don’t believe global warming is man-made. We even have “flat-earthers” who do not believe the earth is round.
We talk about how to convince them, how to reach them, how to present facts in a respectful way that does not make them feel defensive. We talk about how to change their minds.
Framing Science Communication
Does the language we use to talk about science denial make it worse? It can often be a combative and negative way to frame these debates and creates a hierarchy.
Perhaps more importantly, it’s counter-productive. By framing conversations around how to “solve” science denial, are we alienating the very people we need to listen to?
Recently, I attended a day-long symposium at The New York Academy of Sciences, co-sponsored by the Rutgers Global Health Institute called “Science Denial: Lessons and Solutions,” and by the middle of the day my biggest lesson was to stop calling it science denial.
I went into the day thinking of science denial as a systemic issue, stemming from the way we educate children and a lack of science and information literacy, or developing from the way private interest groups manipulate science to their own ends, like Tobacco companies in the 1990s.
Then I began to think about hubris. People who refuse to believe in scientific evidence are not necessarily scientifically illiterate: sometimes they are filled with certainty that they know the truth and everyone else is following the herd blindly. There is a sense of pride in that exceptionalism, and the knowledge that when everyone else finally knows the truth, you will be a trailblazer, a hero.
We would all like to change someone’s mind. We would like to find the piece of data that unlocks the universe for someone and makes them see the world in a new light.
But no amount of evidence is going to make someone believe something, and no amount of fact is going to change a mind that doesn’t want to change.
Does it matter?
Communicate, Don’t Alienate
During the day’s discussions, several people pointed out that communication is a tactic, but what we really want is policy or cultural change through science or informed by scientific evidence. If this is the case, then we need to make sure the ways we talk about acceptance of scientific ideas don’t alienate but instead invite collaboration.
We need to get beyond the communication battleground of what the public believes. There is room for us to act on the same thing for different reasons. We can focus on disagreeing with people while still fostering a dialogue and working toward shared goals like safe communities, healthy children and more.
Where we’ve been trained to educate, inform, debate, we need to listen. We need to find common ground on different issues and understand why each of us thinks and believes the things we do.
As EO Wilson wrote, “People would rather believe than know.” But this does not mean we can’t work toward change. By starting the conversation with what we share rather than where our ideologies diverge, we can come together for changes that can help bring about a sustainable future.
To learn more about the other conversations we had during the symposium, visit this link.
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