Sunday, February 26, 2017

Coming out from hiding to speak up for science

Since last November’s U.S. presidential election, I’ve been in hiding. My hiding has been mostly figurative, but sometimes literal, with me hiding my head under the bed covers.  Like many, I was stunned by the results. And the assaults on science have been fast and furious since the new administration took office. Contemplating this election and what lies ahead has been daunting and depressing for many of us, especially for those who work in, value, and respect science.  I’ve felt immobilized, but it’s time for me to leave that in the past. It’s time for me to think about how I can stand up for science in the coming months.

Responses to the election on social media include calls for scientists to engage with the administration and with the science-skeptical public.  Both scientists and science advocates are calling for scientists to become more involved in public dialogue and become part of our political landscape, even run for office. But what does this mean for science communicators? I don’t feel I can answer that question for all science communicators, but I’m trying to answer it for myself.

How can I become part of the long-term dialogue that we need in order to restore public confidence in science? I’ve worked on museum exhibits and other public communications for 20+ years and I’m accustomed to explaining science in everyday language. But what I’m not accustomed to is having discussions about science that aren’t centered on scientific evidence and facts. However, that’s where most of our public dialogue is today, in a facts-lite or fact-free zone.  Too many people don’t trust science and scientists, so scientific facts, even when presented with great clarity, won’t necessarily help a conversation progress.

The challenge for me, both as a science communicator and a citizen, is presenting my positions convincingly without assuming that factual content will persuade. I suspect that contemplating such conversations is a conundrum for more than just me these days.

I’m getting some idea of how to have facts-lite conversations from social media. I’m a big fan of Twitter, but most of my Twitter community is fairly like-minded, interested in science, nature, and conservation. On Twitter, I’m mostly preaching to fellow choir members.

However, the same isn’t true of Facebook. My Facebook friends and family span a wider political spectrum and include people who aren’t necessarily science advocates. On Facebook, I’ve tried entering into a few conversations with people who think differently than I do.

I’ve learned to do this carefully and with restraint. Social media is a place where people who may be kind in person show a different face, sometimes turning into bullies. And there are some people who don’t seem capable of a calm exchange—they want to rant. In those cases, I find it best to stop responding pretty quickly (as much as I may want to defend my point).

But occasionally, I have an exchange on Facebook from which I learn something.  For instance, I posted a newspaper article about the Trump administration blocking government scientists from communicating with the public. I called it un-American (perhaps too provocative a word choice).  A woman I’ve never met, a friend of a Facebook friend, asked “If the information has never been made public, how can we be sure this is really un-American?”

My first reaction was irritation at what I considered a silly, or perplexing at best, question. But fortunately, I didn’t respond right away. I took some time to think about her question and gave her the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps she wasn’t being contrary; maybe she truly didn’t understand what I meant.  So I attempted to calmly clarify what I meant.

I introduced myself as a science communicator who works with scientists regularly. I said that science works by being open and transparent, and when scientists can’t share their findings publicly, it hurts scientific progress and denies everyone access to important data.

I tried to speak from the heart and avoid any hint of confrontation or irritation. It was not the greatest answer in the world;  I learned that I should invest some time in crafting a few brief “elevator pitch” answers on topics I care about—to be ready for next time. 

More importantly, I was reminded how essential it is to listen and think about what others are saying and not to react too quickly. While I want to defend science, getting defensive isn’t a productive way to do so.

The woman to whom I responded didn’t leave another comment, so I don’t know if my answer was useful to her.  But her question was useful to me. Trying to answer her, and thinking about the friendly conversations all science supporters need to be having with others, was thought-provoking for me. 

Restoring public trust in science and scientists will be a long journey, a journey on which I’m only one of many travelers. And thus far, I've only taken a couple of baby steps. But at least these steps are getting me out of hiding. 

Next up?  Writing a couple of clear, non-confrontational signs for the March for Science.

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