How best to communicate science?

June 8, 2018 • 1:15 pm

It is increasingly evident that, unlike acceptance of most scientific “truths” (i.e. provisional truths), acceptance of evolution rests not on knowing the many facts supporting evolution, but about being part of a “tribe” (liberals, intelligentsia, and so on) that either accepts evolution, or of a “tribe” (conservative religionists and Republicans) that rejects evolution. Here, for instance, is a section of Steve Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now, that gives the results of a recent survey:

This is not exactly heartwarming to someone like me, whose first and most popular book is a presentation of the evidence for evolution. Did I go wrong trying to do that? Shouldn’t have I been working on getting people to change tribes rather than giving them evidence on a subject about which they’d already made up their minds? Well, yes, that’s one reason I criticize religion—the main constituent of anti-evolution tribalism.

This doesn’t just go for evolution. As you might expect, tribalism affects the acceptance of science when it comes to other stuff like global warming and vaccination, although in the case of global warming, at least, the tribalism is based more on politics than on religion. Regardless, however, when it comes to accepting “controversial” theories, scientific facts take a back seat to ideology and the desire to flaunt your membership credentials to your tribe.

A new piece in Quillete by Ryan Glaubke gives other evidence for a tribalistic effect on science acceptance. (Glaubke is a grad student at Old Dominion University in Virginia, studying climate science.) In “Communicating science in an era of post-truth” (not a title I like), he contrasts the “deficit model” of science acceptance (your acceptance is based on understanding the phenomenon) with the “cultural cognition model” (your acceptance of science is based on your perception of your social identity, and the beliefs that jibe with others of that identity). To Glaubke, the data so far suggests that the latter model is more important:

Yet the deficit model cuts against a mounting body of evidence that suggests literacy is not the primary contributor to the public’s attitude towards science. For instance, a group of researchers led by Yale Professor Dan Kahan conducted a survey of over 1,500 U.S. adults to assess the relationship between the public’s understanding of climate change and their assessment of the risk it poses to our society. They discovered that participants with an extensive understanding of the science were actually less concerned about the potential devastations of climate change, a finding that directly conflicted with the predictions of the deficit model. In its place, Kahan offered what he called the cultural cognition thesis. This holds that an individual’s perception of science—and, in turn, assessment of risk—is primarily influenced by perception of social identity.

Kahan’s theory is supported by a recent study conducted at the Philipp University of Marburg in Germany, where researchers demonstrated that a participant’s interpretation of science—as well as their opinion of scientists—is significantly influenced by their perceived membership of a social community. When presented with evidence that conflicts with their predisposed worldview, participants were more likely to doubt the integrity of the science and the credibility of the scientist. The implication here is that when our deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, we tend to dismiss the science and cling to our beliefs with even greater vehemence—a phenomenon known as the backfire effect.

These studies suggest that the implementation of the deficit model and its associated attempts at ‘educating’ the public only exacerbate the divide between experts and lay citizens. Such attempts antagonize the very people with whom professional scientists need to connect, reinforcing the perception of an ivory tower and further isolating academics from the general populace. The deficit model approach, then, cannot be the solution to the polarization we see today. As Will Storr succinctly put it in his 2014 book The Unpersuadables: “Reason is no magic bullet.”

If reason and data don’t work, then, what do we do? The only solution, according to Glaubke, is to make people think that accepted science is not contrary to the tenets of their tribe. It is, as we discussed years ago with reference to the ideas of Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet, to engage in “framing.” In the case of religion, for instance, you have to trot out religious scientists like Francis Collins to show that you can be religious and also accept evolution. In other words, you have to show people that someone they trust—a member of their tribe—accepts the science they reject.


It follows, then, that in order to effectively communicate science in our modern, socially-compartmentalized society, scientists must tailor their messages to meet the concerns, priorities, and values of those they wish to reach. By reframing the science to meet the needs of the general public, communicators are able to transcend our faulty evolutionary design—tribalism, belief, our affinity for emotionally-laden thinking—by leveraging their influence over our information processing, much like a Trojan Horse that allows facts to clear the mental barriers we erect against uncomfortable truths. I call this the adaptive model of science communication.

A few recent examples illustrate the method’s utility and success.7 In an effort to connect with evangelicals about the importance of environmental conservation, the entomologist and author E. O. Wilson argued in his book The Creation that, as the species granted dominion over this world by god, we have a moral duty to act as responsible stewards of the environment. Using this moral framework, Dr. Wilson was able to reach a new audience by carefully linking the urgency of ecological preservation to the values enshrined in the Bible.

In a similar attempt to reach the religious community, the National Academies and the Institute of Medicine framed their joint report on the teaching of evolution in science classrooms by moving away from the antagonistic ‘science vs. religion’ narrative, and suggesting that science and religious faith can be reconciled. By highlighting religious scientists (such as NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins) or religious figures who accept evolutionary science (such as the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby) religious communities could be persuaded that they do not have to choose between empirical evidence and their religious identity. This is a controversial idea, but a useful tool nonetheless.

Somehow I’m unable to do this. I am not constituted in a way that can tell people that science and religion are compatible, for I feel strongly that they aren’t. This does not mean that, when trying to convince people of the truth of evolution (I don’t talk about global warming, as it’s not my area of expertise), I tell them that religion is bunk and that they’re morons if they’re creationists. Clearly you won’t get anywhere by antagonizing your audience at the outset. This is why I try to separate my criticisms of religion from my advocacy of evolution, although in evolution talks I’ll often end, after giving lots of evidence, by mentioning that the reason people reject such good evidence is religion. I don’t mix the magisteria, to use Gould’s phrase, but I don’t water down my criticisms of religion, either, nor pretend that there’s no conflict in accepting Jesus and accepting science. Of course there is!

And there’s an important bit missing from Glaubke’s article: evidence.  Although he says that Wilson’s book illustrates the “utility and success” of framing, as does as the National Academy Reports and other hypocritical incursions of such atheistic bodies into theology, there are no data showing that these methods change minds, or, more important, change them more than teaching under the “deficit model.” All he says is that E. O. Wilson or the National Academy “reach a new audience.” The important thing, though, is whether that audience is persuaded. And about that we know—nothing.

I know from experience, and the many emails I’ve gotten, that my book Why Evolution is True did change a number of people’s minds about evolution, turning them from creationists into evolution-acceptors. I also know that Richard Dawkins’s books on both evolution and religion have facilitated both acceptance of evolution and rejection of religion, as evidenced by the hundreds of letters in his Converts Corner site (note: there are 160 pages of letters). In other words, minds have been changed not by framing, but by giving people the unvarnished truth. (A lot of people have come to accept evolution simply as a byproduct of rejecting religion, for there’s no reason to be a creationist unless you’re religious.)

Now where are comparable stories supporting Glaubke’s thesis? Where are the hundreds of pages of letters saying, “You know, I thought evolution was a crock of bullshit until I heard Francis Collins say that evolution was true. Now I accept it!”.  I’m sure the method has worked for some, but there are simply no data supporting it. Likewise, BioLogos, the organization founded by Collins and Uncle Karl Giberson to get evangelical Christians to accept evolution, has been pretty much a dismal failure. Instead of roping thousands of evangelicals into the Tent of Evolution, it’s become a venue for apologetics, with Christians arguing over issues like whether there still could have been a real Adam and Eve, even though evolutionary genetics tells us otherwise. It sure hasn’t made evangelicals flock to Darwinism!

Let us all, then, act according to our constitutions. If you think people can be religious and accept evolution, by all means tell them that, and give them something to gnaw on. If you think that religion and evolution are inimical, as I do, then don’t pretend they are. Teach people the evidence for evolution and let them mull it over. It’s worked for me! Or criticize religion as being an antiscientific purveyor of myths and fairy tales. That’s worked for Dawkins and others. But let us not pretend that the best way to learn science, despite the survey data of Kahan et al., is to communicate the idea that science is consonant with the values of your tribe. That survey data might be correct, but the proof is in the outcome—and we have no evidence that the “trust-me-I’m-one-of-your-tribe” model is better than the deficit and the antagonism-to-religion models.


65 thoughts on “How best to communicate science?

  1. “Somehow I’m unable to do this.”

    (“this” means accommodation)

    Because it’d be patronizing.

    I’d add to this good post that an important part of reading e.g. Why Evolution Is True (The Book!) is coming across it in the first place.

    If an individual’s intellectual compass is out of whack, e.g how to decide what the next book will be, what I think is being suggested is to warp the science to get picked up by an out-of-whack compass.

  2. I suppose we should be trying to persuade communists that property rights are compatible with their worldview.

  3. Interestingly, the opposite process happened to me. When I was studying in grad school, I switched my position on both evolution and global warming – I had previously been a denier. It was *after* that that I became more liberal.

  4. Another way to get them out of their tribal affiliation is to take their point of view and run with it.

    Our argument that there are so many religions, how can you know yours is correct is a good starting point. If science contradicts your religion … you probably have one of the wrong religions. Why would God’d creation contradict the teachings of your church is your church wasn’t one of the really wrong ones.

    Your church tells you all of the others are wrong in some fashion. We accept that they say that and that it is true based upon their analysis. But can we trust them to tell us that your church is really one of the wrong ones were they to find that out? All of those officials would lose their jobs.

    The only way to confirm your church is correct is to see how closely it conforms to God’s Creation that we can see with our own eyes!

    I am tired of fighting this battle on the defensive. How about taking it to them.

    1. I have my doubts that this approach would be effective. I suspect that every religious person knows that their religion isn’t the only one and that this fact represents something of a challenge to religious faith. Their chosen religion has likely already incorporated a pat answer to this question into their teachings.

    2. I frequently don’t label myself, and often intentionally comment on something I have in agreement with the other person, before discussing the topic at hand. It takes them off the defensive. Then, sometimes they see my point.

  5. I disagree deeply with Glaubke’s thesis. What he is proposing is not a way to improve communication of science, but a way to use science to advance socio-political arguments. In all his examples, he implicitly assumes that the known science leads to an absolute political position, e.g. that acceptance of climate change means that we have to do something about it. That’s a moral or philosophical judgment, not a scientific one.

    Moreover, he ignores the plethora of other scientific issues whose understanding correlates strongest with simple literacy of the science involved: safety of GMOs and nuclear power are two prime examples (see the Pew Research Center’s 2015 report).

  6. An interesting post. There are a variety of approaches and one should go with the one that works best for you. I like the evidence-based approach you took in WEIT.

    A story from my past. I first encountered evolution in high school. I was non-religious (not an atheist at that point) but my best friend and study partner was quite religious at the time. We both found the theory of evolution astonishing, perhaps for different reasons.

    My friend was having trouble with perceived conflicts with his religious belief that God created life, and it hampered his even learning about it. At one point I suggested to him that no one really knows how God did it, so perhaps we should study evolution as if He did it that way. That did it. He took to evolution like a duck to water and did better in science than I did.

    Perhaps not relevant for communicating to adults, but one case where accommodationism seemed to work.

  7. Question is, can humanity evolve out of its’ tribalism phase? It will mean that we have to lose or at least tamp down our paredolia & other religion-creating characteristics.

    1. That would require that tribalism be nonadaptive. While it’s easy to come up with instances in which that’s definitely the case, overall tribalism in social apes seems to be the way to survive. (Some apes; orangutans seem to not need it to the same extent the rest of us do.)

      Though I suspect you were talking about “cultural evolution.” One might look at the multifarious tribes of one kind or another humans have created so far and think culturally evolving toward non-tribalism is even less likely than doing so biologically.

  8. This issue comes up when speaking about vaccines too. If you try to convince anti-vaxxers that they are wrong about vaccines by appealing to facts you will often fail. What seems to work is to talk to them about their responsibilities as parents and citizens. That is not to say that one should not use facts to try to persuade because there is a non-zero proportion of the anti-vax crowd who CAN be swayed by facts. But many can’t.

    It is the nature of humans. Didn’t we have a discussion yesterday about magical thinking, astrology, Dr. Oz and Everyday Feminism? Facts don’t matter to them either.

    For what it’s worth, I have recommended “Why Evolution is True” and even lent my copy out to people who, while not creationists, did not understand the breadth and depth of the evidence for evolution. Your book, in addition to a couple of others, including Shubin’s “Your Inner fish”, greatly helped. There are some for whom facts, reason and evidence makes a difference and whole lot for whom they don’t mean a thing.

  9. It sounds like the route to success is to be patronizing, condescending to the religious and that will get them to come around. It might work with someone like a Trump but not likely with any hard core religious belief system. No way. They have to be removed from their dogma and belief without evidence system before they can handle reality. What they seem to be saying is – brain wash them a little and then you might have success. Sounds like a real learning experience.

  10. No, no. Just teach them the facts. There is probably a cult-ish barrier, but if they don’t understand the science on their own, then they don’t understand it. I used to be mean when I would try and teach evangelicals the timeline of vertebrate (and all) history and how everything didn’t begin only 6,000 years ago. I think it is more effective to be careful and gentle instead of aggressive and insulting because people won’t even listen. It’s difficult enough because their worldview is being challenged. I sort of think now also that explaining why religious texts are incorrect and are the way they are might help, too. I just got this recently from a talk about Faith vs. Fact about the different methodologies in science and religion. It just sort of solidified for me that that difference was there. I think explaining that these books are based mostly on revelation would be helpful for the religious people. I have some other questions also about the history of different religions that I think might help religious people understand more clearly.

  11. Jerry … what did you think of Gretta Vosper’s (atheist minister) talk at the Imagine No Religion conference last June?

    Would her “religion” be compatible with science.

    And on a related note have you heard if, when where the talks will be posted?

  12. … when it comes to accepting “controversial” theories, scientific facts take a back seat to ideology and the desire to flaunt your membership credentials to your tribe.

    That’s why some ultra-rationalists contend politics is the mind-killer.

  13. Exactly, the data is on the fact science side, not the anecdote apologist side. Speaking of which, one can argue that scientific “literacy” that behave tribal is just repeating facts without understanding the process, “real” literacy if you will.

    After all, if tribalism was the crucial factor, scientists and educated would still hive to their tribal preconceptions. But the statistics is that they accept science and reject religion.

  14. Not everyone reasons via tribal identity. I suppose you’ve seen this:

    The important attitude for someone to have is to be curious as to what the truth is, but not have a preference that it be one thing or the other.

    My approach these days is to focus on convincing people that their tribal identities often do make them have a preference for a particular conclusion and that that preference distorts their ability to reason objectively. If I can’t convince them that this might be true, then I don’t think I have a prayer of convincing them that some of their derivative views might be wrong.

    1. ❝The important distinction is not between theists and naturalists; it’s between people who care enough about the universe to make a good-faith effort to understand it, and those who fit it into a predetermined box or simply take it for granted. The universe is much bigger than you or me, and the quest to figure it out unites people with a spectrum of substantive beliefs. It’s us against the mysteries of the universe; if we care about understanding, we’re on the same side.❞

      — Sean Carroll


    2. Actually your approach seems more promising to me than the Vox article. The research mentioned in the article doesn’t offer any tools – it just says that, if you look at people who are *already* scientifically curious, they’re good reasoners. But your idea, while it doesn’t increase curiosity per se, just might work (by a different route). I hope Kahan and/or other researchers look into it.

  15. I suppose that most of us are that way with particle physics – we just accept that the science is right, without being able to comprehend the complex math. After all they’re scientists, right? And scientists just love to point out each others mistakes. A unique intellectual fail-safe system.


    1. I guess this is the sort of “faith” that the religious accuse those who believe in science of having. Of course, it is different from religious faith in that it is the belief that one could understand particle physics if one spent the time to acquire the requisite knowledge. In other words, it is not a matter of faith at all but hard work and dedication.

      1. Also, although I might not be able to do the math, I know there are others out there ready, willing and able to spot errors.

        I have faith that science is self-correcting. No person can say that about religion.

      2. “it is the belief that one could understand particle physics if one spent the time to acquire the requisite knowledge.”

        I’d have a minor quibble there. I think most of us don’t really believe we could understand particle physics because it is, reputedly, very hard.

        But I think most of us science-friendly types do believe that it is understandable by anyone smart enough (and able to follow the math). (You could substitute ‘have faith that’ for ‘believe’ if you wished. The degree of similarity to religious ‘faith’ is probably variable and depends on the individual).


        1. You are right, of course. I am a math guy so I do believe I would understand particle physics. Of course, at my age that might be a bigger hurdle than I’d like to believe. On the other hand, it has been said that no one really understands quantum physics (not splitting the particle vs quantum hair). And, of course, the level of understanding of anything varies from person to person, scientists included.

          I think of “faith” and “belief” as having similar, but not identical, meanings. When we say “take it on faith” we mean belief without proof. Scientific belief should never be unfounded but must be backed up with experimental evidence and rational thinking.

    2. Trust me, the Standard Model is right. (My scientific swan song was putting a lower bound on the mass of the Higgs boson, 10 GeV less than the mass determined by the LHC!)

      It’s when you get into the intimacy of quantum and general relativity that things become less concrete and different people have different convictions that one particular model is better at describing reality than another. But we mustn’t confuse the map for the territory.

      So, the Standard Model is right inasmuch as it provides accurate descriptions of the parts of the landscape that it provides accurate descriptions of.

      /@ Ph.D. (Theoretical Physics), Dunelm, 1986

  16. I challenge the claim of creationists to speak for the Christian tribe. Consider this, from Presbyterian theologian Henry Drummond over a century ago: to quote Wikipedia, Drummond “chastises those Christians who point to the things that science can not yet explain—”gaps which they will fill up with God”—and urges them to embrace all nature as God’s, as the work of “an immanent God, which is the God of Evolution, is infinitely grander than the occasional wonder-worker, who is the God of an old theology.”

    Many decades ago, I was a believer, but it never occurred to me to doubt the clear truth of evolutionand an old Earth (perhaps I was just fortunate with my tribe). And now I feel I can with a clear conscience make a point of citing believers writing for believers as authorities, for example Roger Wiens on radioetric dating. And while tribalaffiliation does have a massive effecton evolution acceptance, a recent study shows that *within* each tribe, more understanding led to greater acceptance: “we find that knowledge predicts level of acceptance, even after accounting for the effects of religion and politics. These results demonstrate that Americans’ views on evolution are significantly influenced by their knowledge about this theory and therefore might be amenable to change.”

    1. Later, but along the same lines:

      ❝How wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed farther and farther back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.❞

      — Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (1997, p. 311)


  17. . The implication here is that when our deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, we tend to dismiss the science and cling to our beliefs with even greater vehemence—a phenomenon known as the backfire effect.

    And the solution for this character flaw, the way to reduce this lamentable human tendency?

    Oh, wait. We’re not trying to improve the problem. We’re going to validate and reinforce it by using it, working it to get something we want.

    That doesn’t sound pragmatic; it sounds like con artistry.

    1. I beg to differ. You can work around a problem and work to solve it at the same time, or you can do it sequentially. Especially when a person’s denial puts other people’s lives in danger (sea level rise, flooding, droughts …), it might be reasonable to cure the symptom first, and the underlying disease later.

  18. IMO, religious propositions fall into 3 categories-

    1) Propositions More or less unverifiable, untestable, unfalsifiable- invisible entities of various kinds, angels, gods, ghosts, etc.
    (You do have to oppose philosophical materialism to believe these things.)

    2) Propositions Testable which turn out to be false-
    the Mormon notion that Native Americans are descendants of the lost tribes of Israel is pretty much refutable by DNA testing, and the Mormon belief that Native Americans routinely used Iron Age tools before the arrival of Europeans is obviously false.

    3) Propositions Testable and probably true, but their truth doesn’t in any way verify the religion as a whole-
    Unlike Ken Ham’s creation museum, the Egyptian museum in San Jose operated by Rosicrucians presents a version of Egyptian history mainstream historians will probably back.
    With notable exceptions like George Wells, etc. most academic classic scholars believe Jesus probably existed.
    But the correctness of the Rosicrucian outline of Egyptian history is not evidence Rosicrucianism is true, and buying into the arguments of Bart Ehrman, Paula Fredriksen, etc. that Jesus existed does not verify the Christian religion. (Neither BE nor PF are Christians.)

    BioLogos runs into a problem, because of Christian belief in a fall of Adam that makes Jesus’ death necessary. Once you raise the spectre of humans descended from multiple ancestors, the Western Christian understanding of fall and atonement is in serious trouble.

    But I suspect that a few Christians have become more comfortable with evolution as result of the efforts of Ken Miller and/or Collins. The comparison of the numbers with converts to Dawkins is one I have no clue about. (Also has BioLogos caused anyone to become Christian after they decided evolution was an obstacle to belief?)

  19. Very stimulating post, I’ll have to re-read later

    One thing I’d emphasize in “science communication” would be the general category of how to tell if you are fooling yourself (that’s Feynman ), or how your conclusions could be – not wrong per se, but how to turn the ideas over in your head. To cross-validate claims, … etc.

    The slow backspacing is killing me here…

  20. Speaking as a once committed believer and now atheist, the thing I finally realized is that science is beautiful, that evolution is a lens through which all biology (actual and potential) becomes finally visible, that, as Dawkins put it in the title of his book, there is a magic in reality. Science speaks to some of the deepest longings of the human soul (I still use that word). I well remember the time I read the essay on “making tracks through animal space” in Dawkins’ book The Blind Watchmaker. I felt chills (I think I distinctly heard the opening chords to “2001 Space Odyssey” in my mind) when the implications of his simple “methinks it is like a weasel” program sank in. Sagan’s Cosmos series (the music didn’t hurt, of course) had a similar effect on me. Being handed a grand key to understanding the cosmos — science — is a deeply emotional, spiritual thing compared to which all the religious stories I grew up with sound like tales for children. I don’t know how many others there are like me out there, but it was when I realized that science provided what I always most deeply sought in my spiritual yearnings as a youth that I knew I had a suitable replacement for religion in my life.

    I have had relapses. A few years back I was feeling depressed and wandered back to some Christian apologetics that had comforted me in my previous life. No good- I just got worse. In the course of my wanderings I made my way to a bookstore and read Oliver Sacks’ book Island of the Colorblind, and found the wonder, and pathos, the beauty I was seeking in the old books that no longer spoke to me.

    As the bible says, if a child asks for bread, will his parent give him a stone? Dispassionate respect for facts and evidence is good as far as it goes, but until people (at least some of them — at least me) feel the “click”, the chill and the chords from “2001”, they may not realize that what they are holding is, indeed, bread.

  21. Great post. I think I’ve mentioned somewhere on my page, but finding out the percentage of Americans that don’t accept evolution is what drove me to be a vocal atheist.

    I know we don’t have data on creationists-turn-accepting evolution types, but my hunch is if they picked up your book, they’re already not “hardcore” fundamentalist. So your book is accepted. However, with hardcore fundies, it’s more important to challenge their religion first.

    Just my thoughts on the matter. Thanks!

  22. “we have no evidence that the “trust-me-I’m-one-of-your-tribe” model is better than the deficit and the antagonism-to-religion models.”

    With respect, I doubt we have any evidence (other than anecdotal) to the contrary, either.

    I strongly suspect that what works for many people doesn’t work for many others and ‘one size fits all’ is untrue.


  23. ‘When the item was prefaced with “According to the theory of evolution,” … religious and non-religious test-takers responded the same’.
    “This is not exactly heartwarming to someone like me, whose first and most popular book is a presentation of the evidence for evolution. Did I go wrong trying to do that?”

    No, IMO, you didn’t go wrong. People aren’t going to accept a theory which they only have a sketchy knowledge of, and the more familiar they are with a topic, the more likely they are to accept it as fact, if not immediately, then eventually. I’d hazard that it’s rare for people to have an epiphany ‘everything I always thought was wrong’. More often it’s a gradual change of views.

    The factoid about the survey is not surprising, by the way. People are reluctant to endorse as fact something they don’t believe. Imagine an atheist being asked “How long did it take God to create the world?” – prefixed with ‘According to Genesis…’ and you’d get the conventional answer.


  24. “We have a habit in writing articles published in scientific journals to make the work as finished as possible, to cover all the tracks, to not worry about the blind alleys or to describe how you had the wrong idea first, and so on. So there isn’t any place to publish, in a dignified manner, what you actually did in order to get to do the work.
    “The Development of the Space-Time View of Quantum Electrodynamics,” Nobel Lecture (11 December 1965)

    – Richard Feynman
    Source :

    1. Feynman was one smart cookie! It has often been noted that there are several flaws with the scientific publishing process, of which Feynman’s is one. These include a bias toward positive results, a bias against including opinions even when noted as such, a bias against novel ideas, to name a few. Things have improved though.

      1. Yes the publishing biz is one thing.

        I picked that quote to highlight the … tendency to read/hear/see highly refined pieces of writing/etc. that illustrate and stimulate thought in scientific areas. E.g. PCC(E)’s Why Evolution Is True.

        In such pieces, there is sure to be descriptions of how scientists may have struggled to arrive at a final conclusion, for example Carroll’s “The Particle at the End of the Universe” might be an example, or “A Crack in Creation”. However, in those cases, we know what happens at the end, leaving no reader unsatisfied.

        …. ummm.. what am I trying to say …

        Feynman’s quote illustrates the experience of scientific work, how these final big results and conclusions only unfold like that with the most elite of scientists, if at all (I am not an elite scientist, so can’t speak from experience). Stories that are not conlcluded do not make good sales.

        Sites like this one here (Why Evolution Is True – The Website!) are good because we get to hear about the primary literature. But even those pieces have been through the publication machine.

        While religion satisfies with a here-and-now experience, for science to satisfy in the same way would mean to convey that day-to-day struggle when a theory is not a theory yet. The story of Darwin comes to mind, yet, right now – the here-and-now in 2018 — we all already know about evolution. Cutting edge stories would be a hard sell when the outcome is so uncertain. Imagine popular science books on the discoveries behind CRISPR before CRISPR had “arrived”.

        I’m getting lost now, so I’ll zip it.

  25. I sometimes wonder if people actually consider their positions deeply or if such consideration is secondary to the concept of belonging to a tribe. I often asked myself, “am I an atheist because religious claims have not satisfied the onus of proof in my estimation? Or do I just like the idea of being an atheist?” I am definitely the former. I suppose the ability to question my motivations and look at myself critically displaces me from any “tribe.”

  26. “The important thing, though, is whether that audience is persuaded.” 

    Ed Kroc (#5 above) hit the nail on the head: “What [Glaubke] is proposing is not a way to improve communication of science, but a way to use science to advance socio-political arguments.”

    When “concerned scientists” are mainly concerned about persuading rather than informing, they cease being scientists and become rhetoricians—or worse, politicians. Global warming experts like Glaubke are especially prone to this transformation, citing urgency as their excuse. Most of the research grants re global warming these days are not about the phenomenon itself but about developing strategies to get the ignorant masses to believe it’s happening. Aside from being patronizing in the extreme, there’s seems to me something very wrong with this picture.

    The goal of scientific communication (vis a vis the public, at any rate) is not to convert or even persuade but to educate—specifically, to clarify complex issues without at the same time oversimplifying them. Jerry’s on the right track: “Teach people the evidence. . .and let them mull it over.” Period.

  27. The definition of “audience” – it seems to become hazy :

    “All he says is that E. O. Wilson or the National Academy “reach a new audience.” The important thing, though, is whether that audience is persuaded.”

    Let’s call the set of individuals that read either of those things A. Glaubke says set A is either “evangelicals” or the “religious community”. Let’s just combine them all.

    He claims the pieces of literature “reach a new audience”. So is that is some fraction of A that would otherwise have ignored the literature? Is Glaubke trying to say the entire group were persuaded by the literature? It is not clear, and it seems unlikely that 100% would be persuaded.

    What about (yes I’m what abouting here) readers who, like us here (I guess), objected to the “framing”? I could imagine some “evangelicals/religious communities” to object to framing for the inverse reason that we do.

    1. Oh and I forgot to write:

      It would be good to know what fraction “new audience” makes of the total readership. It could be hundreds, it could be three.

  28. Regarding “science communication”, specifically the case where faith inhibits the communication:

    It seems clear that faith/religion directly satisfy certain things that science will never satisfy. Consequently, science communication ought to include something about what science cannot give us, and also what desires are absurd, that appear science could produce… I … don’t wish to list any here… but you can imagine some…. which would help illustrate that science is no panacea – it is not a cure-all. Is faith/religion characterized as a cure-all, or am I making that up?

    I will go out on a limb and suggest that religion/faith satisfy – or perhaps cover up – big emotional/personal problems. Insecurity I propose is one big one – people with insecurity issues would not be expected to reject “sincerely held beliefs” (SHB’s).

    … I hope what I just wrote will HELP ME SLEEP TONIGHT for goodness sake!

  29. The june 2018 physics today has letters from readers responding to feb 2018 article that jerry mentioned in his blog (accomodation between science and religion). This post is most recent one sort of connecting to the topic…
    Disappointed in the letters.

  30. I wanted to get this half-baked thought out – feel free to rip it apart (or worse, make no comment at all!) :

    I think for “Science communication” to take off in the case of a religious audience, it needs to be shown that there are moments in the scientific process where scientists use thought processes that LOOK LIKE … faith, say…, and for this I suggest intuition is one example. Another case might be where someone might set up an experiment where, after all the calculations and reasoning is done, the scientist just doesn’t know, and they go for it. This is the kind of stuff that does NOT get reported – dirty experiments that didn’t work, oddities that never get sorted out, etc. The Feynman quote I posted up there ^^^ alludes to this.

    The effect of ^^^^ I think would be a way to find common ground that is independent of the “awe of nature” common ground that we also always hear about (and I think is a tinge patronizing). The message would be “look, I admit, scientists use intuition, we follow hunches, and this is not unlike how the religious follow such notions in their decision making. Consequently, we scientists and you religious communities have some things in common. Let’s work on that.” It could further be distinguished from faith after that.

    … alright, thanks.

    1. If anything, the current doubt about science is partly due to the realization by the general public that scientists are human, make mistakes, and that some of their science is going to proven wrong in the near future. This is shown on the evening news all the time. One year eggs are bad for you, the next they are not so bad, and the year after that they are the key to a long life. This last week we learned that many women with a certain kind of breast cancer will do better with no chemotherapy!

      Making science more transparent is a good thing in the long run but it does create some problems. Many in the general public have no easy way to judge which scientific principles are rock solid and which are not. At some level, even scientists don’t know this. They also don’t always appreciate that because biologists move species around sometimes that this doesn’t disprove evolution, or that climate scientists’ argument over the meaning of some data doesn’t cast doubt on the world getting warmer due to human activity.

      1. I think trying to deal with the aftermath of news … shudder… is hopeless… let’s not go there.

        I’m trying to describe the general case that the scientific process might look and feel very much like … religion – superficially.

        As a corollary to that, I’d argue that religion/faith very much I think operates through transient here-and-now experiences – praying, eating the wafer, drinking the wine. Consequently, what is superficial – to a religious individual – could substitute for fact. An example (I know I’m in outer space at this point) I’d try is, say, seminars – scientific lectures – TED talks even – look and feel like a – wait for it – religious sermon.

        The challenge then (if my far-out description above is anywhere near true) would be to, for the example of seminars looking like sermons, to discriminate the two – to tease apart what is, yes, the same (hard to admit) and what is different. I’d say a priest is giving his sermon to the parishioners (not sure if those terms pair up) can look like a scientist giving a seminar. That could be all a religious follower needs to ignore the science on evolution, for instance. That would mean lecturing the religious on all the great science out there on evolution is going in one ear and out the other. And that’s a problem because science is hard. It is so easy to get wrong. You have to work at it. This could be a fundamental limit to “science communication” – after which the audience – if they must know how it works – says “I’m getting a degree in science”.

        … is it my fault I write so much? Or is this really an enormous topic?

        1. Sorry, but I can’t go along with scientific talks being like a religious sermon. I’m sure a few scientists might think of themselves as having a flock of followers but that’s pretty much it. A scientist knows that whatever they say is subject to the scrutiny of other scientists who may duplicate their results or not. While a scientist would like his or her audience to believe them, they know that they have no right to demand faith.

          1. Sermons don’t tend to have Q&A sessions. Or allow challenges from the congregation. Not all of those giving a seminar or lecture respond gracefully (I’m thinking of the time Hawking challenged Hoyle, at least per the BBC dramatisation) but many do.


          2. Sure, but the superficial resemblance is plain. A guy preaching to the flock. This is a satellite’s-eye view of this problem.

            Or, a different example could be proposed.

            But in any case, the idea would be to go in and parse out those discrepancies, to say “look, we do things more-or-less the same because we are merely human beings. There are enormous discrepancies however, with consequential results.”

    2. I think the difference is that the religious take a pastor’s (or whoever’s) intuition as insight without qualification, whereas for scientists, intuition might provide a candidate solution (a better guess, per Feynman), but that insight is not accepted until it has been experimentally tested. August Kekulé’s dream alone wasn’t enough to demonstrate the structure of benzene!


      1. Yes, and, I think there’s something deeper. I don’t know what it is, but one way to put it might be “not caring what the conclusion is”, or the Sherlock Holmes quote (below) and here I think we will see the greatest discrepancies between religion and science – which bears upon the problem presented in this post of “how best to communicate science” specifically to religious communities and victims of faith.

        Sherlock Holmes quote:
        “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”
        The Sign Of Four (1890)
        Chap. 6, p. 111

        1. Yes. No scientist can make /ex cathedra/ pronouncements (the ultimate argument from authority).

          Richard Feynman: It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is – if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. That is all there is to it.


          1. thoughts

            Evidence, experiment, agreement…

            There exist – sometimes- multiple solutions to mathematical problems, alternative explanations of experimental results.

            How to assure an audience this isn’t, in the superficial view, just like the anodyne lucubrations of Sophisticated Theologians^(TM)?

            … backspace, “123”, “ABC” buttons on iPhone is torture in this comment window…

  31. I think – and say – that accommodation is quite possible. I have no idea whether this is the best strategy, but I think that as long as I am sincere about it, it may work.

  32. Many good points about the self-dishonesty etc. necessary by Jerry and others. But there is one other items that struck me.

    If one is going to use “tribalism” for positive goals, I dare say one should first find out a bit more about how we determine which tribe is in play. We all know the joke about the guy on the bridge being talked down from suicide and ending with a killing of a heretic.

    But that joke has a serious point here: can’t being in the wrong group, however near by, backfire? The joke suggests that in an extreme case. I’ve seen the same: people have tried to use Kenneth Miller, for example, to point out that some Christians are ok (to whatever degree) with evolution. But he’s a *Catholic*, and that does *not* go over well with (some) American fundamentalist Protestants.

  33. Other not-well-thought-out thoughts :

    There is clearly something called “faith”. Could there be something that is opposed to faith? Just as matter is related symmetrically to antimatter (I guess), could faith work in opposition to an antifaith?

    Religion and faith are eroded by science. science describes the natural world. But religion and faith frequently only require critical thinking to break their spell – a tool used by science by not limited to science. A strong treatment of critical thinking would be important- I’m sure it’s been done but now I have to do other things…

Leave a Reply