How to talk about science to those who don’t do it

Science, stories and public support

What science does can be unclear

The March for Science is all about communicating the importance of science to the public, but how is this possible if people don’t understand what science actually does for them? Someone posted this query on  March for Science Facebook page: “What does the EPA do that is important? Why should I care”?  Dozens of responses poured in during the time that it took me to pick my jaw off the table: references to the smoldering Cuyahoga River-a body of water that was so polluted it caught fire in 1969; pictures of Los Angeles under a miasma of brown smog in the 1950s; how uncovering the links between air quality and respiratory disease has saved thousands of lives and millions of dollars; the tragedy of the Love Canal, which lead to the EPA’s Superfund cleanup program; the current tragedy of Flint.

The post and it’s discussion makes clear that we have a lot to do to communicate why people should care about the state of science in the US. Although the public may respect science and scientists in the abstract, their understanding of many contemporary issues is often guided by other concerns. Bonds of friendship, trust or community membership can trump the dispassionate exposition of facts and causality that is the stuff of science. Given that 80% of our friends and neighbors cannot name a single living scientist, what can we say that will affirm why we must continue to support the role of science in personal and collective decision making?


Stories are not just facts

To communicate the value of science, we cannot rely on the skills that are essential for success in science. Scientists learn to converse in facts, but facts often have all the staying power of a wreck seen on the interstate; fascinating but soon in the rear view mirror. But story telling is baked into our psyche since the time we gathered in caves and scrawled on their walls. We seek connections, and these come from emotions. Mother Teresa observed that “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will”.

It’s not hard to find great examples of what works. When asked-Why are you marching, those responding on the March for Science Facebook page tell stories of how their daughter didn’t die of breast cancer; how they watched their livelihood vanish because of a changed environment; of wanting a better discourse between science and religion. They write of the influence beautiful places have had on their lives and their desire to pass this to their children. These stories, all rooted in place and people,  invoke happiness, security, safety or equity and justice. Sometimes fear. We must learn to  humanize science, and to tell similar stories as friends, family, and community members. Empathy is strongly present even in young children-we disregard such tools at our peril.

Once upon a time, a flu outbreak devastated a community, taking many friends and neighbors.  Does this story sound familiar to you? It doesn’t to me either. Thank a scientist.

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