Two scientists are racing
For the cure of all mankind
Both of them side by side
Locked in heated battle
For the cure that is their prize
But it’s so dangerous
But they’re determined
Theirs is to win
If it kills them
They’re just humans
With wives and children
–Oklahoman American Rock Group The Flaming Lips
I read two things that got me to thinking about how to communicate about science to science denialists. The first is a piece at New Scientist, lamenting the fact that for all of the science on TV right now, we’re not exactly winning over science denialists with it. The second is an Amanda Marcotte piece over at Alternet, lamenting that the right wears ignorance as a badge of honor these days.
My suggestion? Humanize science, as a process. I hope to find a common ground between denialists and scientists, I hope that work ethic can be that common ground, and I hope that good science communication can shoulder the burden of bringing the scientist’s work to life.
TV science is not real science
At New Scientist, Chris Mooney discusses Americans’ appetite for shows like The Big Bang Theory and Cosmos. While Big Bang focuses on scientists as people, Cosmos packages science as a product. Very little is said about what goes on in between: the process. Mooney says Big Bang “is a show in which sciencey people say sciencey things, and people can’t get enough of it.” He argues that despite this humanization, and despite the wow factor of Cosmos, there remains a need to “to pull apart dazzling and fascinating from convincing and persuading.” In other words, we aren’t changing any minds. Viewers may love Big Bang‘s nerds in that way your homophobic grandmother loved Jack on Will & Grace. It’s a big project to get people on board with the realities of scientific research, not just the people and the product.
Meanwhile, Marcotte points out the right’s pervasive unwillingness to base decisions in fact. Problem is, scientists don’t deal with facts either, and when we say they do, it allows denialists to point to any discrepancy between ‘facts’ (the supposed outputs of science) as a weakness. It also makes it easier for denialists to construct the ‘snob’ narrative. The truth is, science is a very human project, and it’s the project of figuring things out in case we someday need to know these things to save ourselves. Increasingly, it’s looking like that someday is now, and the thing we need to save ourselves from is ourselves.
Because of this, Marcotte is right to be alarmed at the sheer persistence of denialists who claim to create their own reality through action (see: G.W. Bush). But making it about ‘reality’ vs. ‘action’ is polarizing. We are all actors, and none of us have a firm grip on reality. Facts don’t always point us to answers to our problems. Sometimes the kinds of facts we’re able to get at (the low-hanging fruit) aren’t the kinds of facts that are helpful. And sometimes the helpful ones are elusive. Even just deciding which facts to chase is a decision about what we want and what is likely to succeed. Scientists know this better than anyone, in fact. We sweep it under the rug sometimes when we need to seem awesome (like when it’s time to apply for grants), but we do ourselves a disservice by making it look easier than it is. It’s a struggle. We stumble around in the dark, and in the meantime, the problems are getting bigger.
Finding a common ground
A tractable component of this problem might be, as I said, to humanize science as a process. Sure, I love nerding out about space and the brain as much as your next NPR-listening liberal (note–I do not in fact listen to NPR, but nearly all of my best friends are NPR listeners), but I think denialist culture has a very large overlap with a conservative culture that emphasizes family and tradition. For everyone but, say, Shulamith Firestone, who I can’t say is wrong, family is an ethic we can work with. At the very least, it’s one that seems very dangerous to ignore, given the intense social bonds humans experience.
The prosocial impulses of caring for your own lead to a desire to see them happy and successful. There’s a reverence for the practicality of seeking a career that will guarantee you a roof over your head and food on the table. A good work ethic is something every parent hopes their child has. The dark side of having pride in one’s work ethic sometimes manifests as hand-wringing about ‘welfare queens’ and ‘freeloaders looking for a handout.’
But let’s think about the swing-voting middle class, straddling the line that marks the midpoint of the work to live / live to work continuum. Marcotte’s ‘pinheads’ are those of us lucky enough to have landed a job where you have the intellectual breathing room to engage with ideas that expand your mind and leave you fulfilled. Privilege and hard work are both currents that propelled many of us here. On the other hand, those with less privilege see these jobs as pie-in-the-sky farting around. “Good for you, nerd, but most of us have to put up with more bullshit for less money” is not an unjustified stance.
Communicating about the process: Try it out at home!
These experiences color the messages sent to children about what they can, or should, strive to be when they grow up. In science, I know a lot of academics with academic parents. Value systems rely heavily on what we pick up from our parents, and in the case of scientists’ kids, they get a healthy dose of wonder and comfort in the face of failure. This helps inoculate them against despair and impostor syndrome, I imagine. If scientists don’t dance around their failures when it comes to talking to the public, I think we can slowly chip away at the ‘What the hell do scientists know, anyway?’ crowd. We know how much we don’t know, thank you very much. So help us out a little here.
Every time I go home to Minnesota, I try this out. I have a moment where I share my frustrations about the lack of funding for science with my Republican-voting parents. Being Minnesotan, this is unfailingly conveyed through raw passive aggression, a medium in which we as a people are the unrivaled masters. We are the Flemish realists of passive aggression. And so I pit their want to see me thrive against their votes against science.
But I also let them in on how hard what I’m trying to do is. I can’t handle the idea of them seeing me as some sort of Einstein, when my answer to “So, have you cured Alzhmeimer’s yet?” at Christmas has always been, and will always be, no. So, to explain away my unending lack of a PhD, I have learned to talk about the process, failures and all.
In general, the way we portray science and scientists could stand to have a lot more of this humanizing dialogue greasing the skids, and less of the anger and exasperation at each other that leads to this weird assertion that academic ‘elites’ are alone in our possession of facts. We all have value systems that drive our acquisition of facts. Pointing out the ways in which our values and workaday processes align seems like a way to catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
Sure, contempt for facts is gross, but let’s not respond by being gross back. The sum of human knowledge is really just our best working model, and although sometimes it’s not much of a model, it’s the only model we’ve got. Let’s help people see scientific ‘facts’ for what they are: the end product of following a long road filled with best guesses and lucky breaks. Let’s help the ups and downs of research seem less like the flighty disorganization of the incompetent. Let’s make the messy process of fact-finding a necessary, noble grind in the eyes of its detractors.
Science isn’t magic, and that’s a good thing
Scientists in the trenches know that, while their goals are lofty, the day-to-day can be as much mundane drudgery as anything else. That’s because science isn’t about Carl Sagan thrilling to the mysteries of space. It’s a project, like any other. Joe the Plumber fixes leaks, for instance, and so do scientists. It’s just that we’re trying to fix leaks no one has ever fixed before. None of us know what the hell we’re doing, so yeah, it’s messy. It’s hard. We make wrong turns, chase red herrings, contradict ourselves. Normalizing these twists and turns can prevent them from being used as ammo against us. I think if we want to convince people that science is worthwhile, maybe exposing it as a project with indirect methods but very practical goals (curing cancer, anyone?) would help it seem more accessible.
The less you know about science, the more it seems like magic. The easier it is to discredit it. Calling evolution ‘just a theory like any other’ happens when we talk about facts and theories, but don’t talk about where they came from. Marcotte and Mooney both say that the problem is one of identity, and they’re right. But we all identify with our work–it is the Great American Pathology. Maybe we can leverage that to our advantage. In the end, we’re all just tinkerers working on really hard problems. We’re just trying to fix things. And there’s nothing my dad, a mechanic of some forty years, likes better than fixing things.
Tell your story–it’ll be worth it
Whether we end up fixing things or not, there’s still a story there. Dad also loves–and I mean LOVES–Ice Road Truckers. Have you seen this? It is a History Channel show about dudes who haul big loads over frozen lakes and rivers, and it is gripping stuff. I binge-watched like 6 episodes in a row one Christmas. And as science communicators, I think we can all take a page from their playbook. Getting shit done, against the odds, is the kind of story we all live for.
I’m not saying that scientists need MORE hassles in justifying their existence, or that it isn’t possible that exposing the messiness behind science won’t breed more contempt. But it could help science seem more practical and less snobby. I think we can successfully marry this drive now being espoused by conservatives, the one that says ‘Let’s just go and do, facts be damned,’ with the tenacity of scientists hammering away at some really stubborn problems. They’re not as different as they may seem.
The storytelling being done by science communicators in schools, online, on TV, and over beers is an important step. It is well-known that the complexities of science often prevent it from being neatly communicated, but we are working on it. None of us have facts, ok? So just get to work on communicating your process, facts be damned.
You don’t have to be Carl Sagan, and you don’t have to be a caricature of a pale pinhead. You just have to be a good worker bee. Convince the denialists that you, like them, are just working hard to do right by your world. Letting them see our foibles and hardships right alongside our passion and brilliance may go a long way towards finding that common ground.