an open thread for science-y chat

By Alison Campbell 12/04/2011

Over at Siouxsie’s we’ve been talking about the science around vaccination, but also began a bit of a discussion around how science is perceived & presented. Because this is a particular interest of mine, I thought it might be useful to start another thread rather than sidetrack things at Infectious Thoughts.
So – all yours 🙂 (& it would be really cool if people who regularly read this blog, but don’t comment, could maybe get involved in discussion; it would be so good to ‘see’ you here!)

0 Responses to “an open thread for science-y chat”

  • Just had a quick read of the last thread. I’ve been trying to write a post on a similar topic for a day or two now. hrmmm….
    Over the past few weeks I’ve been having some very frank talks with some of my friends. I’d dearly love to be a better science communicator, but apparently when it comes to talk of homeopathy or magical osteopathy I come across as arrogant and dismissive. Two things have come out of these conversations
    1) When I say “probably” or “I think” or “possibly” or (if it’s outside my area) “I’m guessing but” then no one seems to hear that bit of sentence. The general impression is that science deals in absolutes. As best as I can tell they reason that since I’m a scientist, I must believe in the absolute truth of everything I talk about. Very few appear to have picked up that I get a great deal of joy out of being confronted with things I don’t understand and hence the opportunity to figure it out.

    2) A lot of people still seem to think that the science can’t prove x doesn’t work or y doesn’t exist and that that’s a sufficiently good reason for acting upon something. I’ve tried explaining why this isn’t necessarily a good idea with Russell’s teapot, the sun rising and a heard of elephants in their backyard. At which point I usually get told I’m being closed minded. I’m not really sure where to go from there.

    Summary: there is a huge misconception as to what science is/does/says. Unless someone has a basic understanding of statistics and formal/informal logic and a willingness to admit they might be wrong, then the chances of being able to rectify that without large amounts of person to person contact are, I fear … slim.

  • @tirohia
    In my areas of expertise I am often accused as coming across as arrogant and dismissive, but what I have discovered is the following:
    People want to feel listened to and acknowledged, especially when it comes to their beliefs, expanding on that-it almost comes down to imparting them with a feeling of being valued no matter how inane the concept they introduce is (or you feel it is)-or in laymans terms warm fuzzies. That being said just be really honest whilst respecting their beliefs, it would almost come down to a statement along these lines: “Just think of me as the person that always questions everything, and although I believe X at the moment, that can and does change as new things are discovered that effect the first premise, do I think X works? Well most evidence suggests no, but I am open to the possibility that it might work given time and understanding, exciting isn’t it the chance at discovering something that really works? That places the onus back on the listener, it engages them and makes them think.
    I am a firm believer that messing with someones reality is a dangerous thing, they have built a structure of beliefs that affects every aspect of their daily lives. When someone bulldozes those beliefs it often sends people into a depression, you get resentment, anger and confusion-they question their reality-it is often not plesant. Then you are faced with primitive responses and retorts designed to silence you, and the learning doesn’t happen.
    I don’t believe you need a formal understanding of statistics and formal/informal logic to communicate a scientific concept. What I believe makes for the best communication to a layperson is finding something in their lives they can relate to, without appearing condescending, and also finding those things in that persons life that are subject to rapid unexpected change which helps communicate the nature of scientific discovery and experimentation. I can give practical examples if you like, but I am not sure if I am getting my ideas across effectively or if it’s even something you care to read about.
    I agree with the huge misconception re science, but that requires some clever marketing on saying we haven’t got all the answers but hell we are trying.
    Tips and tricks not to appear arrogant or dismissive:
    “That’s great and have you heard x?” or “Wow now that is a subject worth discussing, did you know?” or “Interesting, you know I feel not enough research has gone into” or “You know that is something I am really not familiar with but wouldn’t it be great if” or “Homeopathy, fantastic stuff, the thing that some people forget is that when homeopathy works it gets called medicine, pretty cool huh?”.
    Please forgive my very basic representation of what can be a complex issue, even the language I am sure needs work to fit your specific issues. As stated I am not a scientist, but communication is kind of my thing in a broadly defined yet precise kind of way.
    In closing communication is a two way street, and for it to flow people need to feel acknowledged and respected, most of all if you are communicating an idea that might change someones beliefs you need to do it gently, they almost need to get to the result by their own process, all you need to do is present that concept in such a way that it makes them question and investigate under their own steam,and sooner or later they will come to a similar conclusion, or something completely unexpected might happen, that is when it gets interesting. Finally just remember people love talking about themselves, and being asked questions (well most do), so when engaging relate things back to them, you will find a different result I am sure.
    Thanks and apologies if I am way off the mark.
    I haven’t a lot of time this morning but I am working on a post and we can go from there:) Thanks

  • I am a firm believer that messing with someones reality is a dangerous thing, they have built a structure of beliefs that affects every aspect of their daily lives. When someone bulldozes those beliefs it often sends people into a depression, you get resentment, anger and confusion-they question their reality-it is often not plesant. Then you are faced with primitive responses and retorts designed to silence you, and the learning doesn’t happen.
    You’re right, & unfortunately such triggers & responses are probably all too common. Dissing someone’s belief system is not a good way to start a discussion off! It’s something all good teachers have in the back of their minds, I think – all students will come into class with a particular suite of conceptions & misconceptions about a subject. It’s the teacher’s job to (gently!) challenge those beliefs & help them see how what they already know meshes in with what’s being taught – or perhaps doesn’t sit with that & needs to be revisited. (Pretty much as you’ve described in your last paragraph here.) Otherwise all you end up doing is producing kids with a thin surface veneer of ‘knowledge’ in your subject, but the underlying conceptions are unchanged & the veneer disappears fairly soon as well.
    Personally I favour a story-telling approach whenever it’s possible – much easier to get people to engage with the subject du jour 🙂

  • The conversations I have (not the meta ones, the ones about woo) tend to involve me asking a lot of questions. I find it’s always rather interesting to find out why someone believes homeopathy works. Telling someone they’re wrong I’ve never found to be particularly useful. Getting someone to figure it out out is much better. On a personal level I’m more worried/interested in figuring out why people ignore the qualifiers I deliberately strew throughout my conversations.

    I don’t necessarily mean a people have to have taken logic/stats or Uni or anything. It doesn’t have to be formal learning. If someone doesn’t or won’t understand the difference between a logical proof (we don’t have a logical proof that the sun will come up tomorrow) and knowledge gained from observation (we’re pretty sure it will). If the general public doesn’t understand that science/scientists freely acknowledge that they might be wrong at the same time being pretty sure they are not, then I don’t think that any amount of clever marketing is going to help.

    To wind this back towards the previous thread – we trust professionals. Sometimes a house burns down because of an electrical fault – we not going to stop going into houses. Sometimes an engineer will get something wrong and hundreds of thousands of cars have to be recalled – we’re not going to stop using cars. Vaccines aren’t perfect, there have been mistakes but they work. Yet there is a movement to abandon vaccines – I don’t see a corresponding movement to abandon housing.

  • W-by-NW,


    but also began a bit of a discussion around how science is perceived & presented

    I didn’t realise you were trying to change the topic in the other thread – I took your remark about communication to be a passing comment, an aside.

    I’ve written a number of articles on this topic, look under the ‘science communication’ tag if you care to “waste” time 🙂

    There is a lot to this subject, which I’ve tried to study in my own time. I’m a bit too rushed to contribute much, but one quick thought: different people will respond to different styles and with that in mind, I don’t think there is one prescriptive “solution” or a “right way to do it”. Rather you need to consider who it is you are trying to reach and in what way.

  • tirohia

    Never underestimate the power of a genuine question to engage someone who has what you consider to be unscientific views. Rather than feeling “talked at” asking them questions can make them feel listened to, and sometimes just asking the right questions can help them reveal inconsistencies in their own arguments.
    I also find analogies useful in communicating so of the less obvious concepts.
    Asking questions also helps you establish what their viewpoint really is. Good discussions are far too often derailed because one person “thinks” they know what the others point of view when they really don’t

    With regards to coming across as dismissive and arrogant, I think sometimes we forget how direct and abrupt discussions amongst scientists are. My favourite description of peer review by an non scientist is that it is the scientific equivalent of cage fighting. Perhaps we need to work very hard to drop things down a couple of notches when in non scientific groups?

    Having suggested these two ideas I have to say I don’t use them as much as I think I should.

  • Questioning is a really good technique. I use it heaps in my classroom teaching as it’s such a good way of getting the students to start doing some serious thinking about a topic. Particularly if you just ask the question & then give them some space to talk about it amongst themselves. There’s some serious learning going on when that happens – & it often results in them throwing out some rather deep & interesting questions themselves (which is one of the things I find really rewarding about teaching). That’s why it’s so good to have people asking questions on these threads (sometimes I think when it’s just ‘us bloggers’ talking on a topic, it can get a bit closed & inward-looking…)

  • hmm. I’m learning even now. perhaps a time line may help. The bit were I get called dismissive is after several session of talking about the magical effects of whatever, including a couple of sessions of questioning. Some spectacular claims are proffered and now amount of question, wheedling or pleading can extract corresponding evidence. Initially I think I’m just regarded as closed minded because I don’t immediately see at least plausibility in the magics. That doesn’t matter, I was intending to use that to illustrate the point I was trying to make which I obviously did poorly. I’ll try not to illustrate things in late night posts any more I think.

    The point I was trying to make, I think, coming from the vaccine thread, was that if people assume that science/scientists believe themselves to be infallible, (they don’t in my experience) then there are a couple of fairly large hurdles that science communication has to overcome before it can do any good. Namely, the preconceived ideas of what scientists are and their ability to trust the statistics that support a lot of science.

    And I’m not sure how better science communication that doesn’t involve 1:1 conversations between scientists and non. is going to help. It doesn’t help to communicate something better if it’s still going to be rejected because it comes from scientists. The only solution that I’ve seen has been a bigger push in schools which is grand, and probably helps but it doesn’t help with communicating to the rest of today’s current society.