Stop science-splaining

Facts and figures tend to fail in the face of grieving parents and political rhetoric.

The look on Bill Nye’s face as conservative commentator Tucker Carlson interrupts him, for the umpteenth time, to question his basic knowledge of climate science is both painful and all too familiar. In a ten-minute segment on his show, Carlson repeatedly laughs in Nye’s face and denounces his credibility, leaving the scientist looking like a joke to the audience of climate deniers Carlson is pandering to.

For decades, scientists have tried to convince politicians and the public that our planet is in danger. At first, it seemed to be working, as politicians came together across the aisle to declare the importance of the issue and work against it. However, rising party tensions and special interest groups shifted climate change from a human issue to a partisan one. Views polarized as Democrats placed more emphasis on the issue and Republicans more skepticism. None of the science has changed — in fact, greater evidence was produced for the case of man-made climate change while this shift was taking place — yet most conservatives remained steadfast in their denial of its existence or importance.

The obvious explanation for a lack of belief in climate change is scientific illiteracy. In other words, if you do not understand the science, you will not trust it. Therefore, it seems natural that presenting climate skeptics with facts and data would change their minds. Strangely, it doesn’t.

Many people are willing to overlook objective fact because it doesn’t fit within their established worldview. The resulting discomfort is called cognitive dissonance, and one way to resolve it is ignoring the evidence altogether. This plays out in the climate change model and can backfire by further cementing people into their views, rather than changing them.

Another example of how cognitive dissonance works is through the vaccine-autism debate, which is centered around a single research paper published in 1998 claiming to provide evidence that the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism. This shocking find was widely spread by the media, who were quick to jump aboard such a sensational story. However, when the study was debunked, repeatedly, there was no similar response. The fact that this debate still exists today shows how ineffective plain data is in reforming people’s opinions. The fear of autism in their children has parents opting not to vaccinate their kids, despite mountains of evidence that so greatly overwhelms the flawed foundation for the original argument.

Likewise, Nye presenting facts and evidence for climate change was never going to change the minds of those who do not believe in it; otherwise, Carlson never would have had him on the show. Explaining science doesn’t work. So why do scientists keep trying to do it?

The scientific instinct is to fight illogic with clear, direct reasoning, the same way scientists approach any problem. That is why debates on subjects like climate change often end up heated on the denial side while the scientist or believer is calm and collected on the other. However, this clear rationale can be perceived as robotic and unemotional. Rather than explaining the science of climate change, scientists’ time would be more efficiently spent explaining its effects. For people whose mindsets are resistant to the evidence, emotional appeals describing environmental refugees or the loss of jobs may be more effective.

Anti-vaxxers have proved this themselves when confronted with scientific data. Many are concerned parents who believe a vaccine caused their child’s injury or death, and consider this story to be scientific evidence in and of itself. This shows how convincing emotional anecdotes or descriptions can be in the mind of someone who resists evidence to the contrary.

There is also a dire need for science communicators, particularly on a local level. These people educate the public and work against misinformation, making science more accessible and easier to grasp. For one thing, statements that can mean so much to scientists do not necessarily translate well for others. The language of science always accounts for the possibility of being wrong with phrases like “no evidence contradicts” and “what we know right now” due to the understanding that scientific knowledge is constantly expanding. The problem is that these phrases may sound rather open and inconclusive, but in the scientific world, they express what most would consider as fact. Science communicators can help bridge this gap and put scientific ideas in context for the public.

This goes hand in hand with a widespread view of scientific authority as being patronizing and elite, which leads to dislike and distrust from many citizens. Science communicators within communities can counteract this image. Hearing about climate change or vaccinations from a local high schooler may make a skeptic think more than hearing a prominent politician or even Bill Nye.

In a time when alternative facts are prevalent, the value of truth has somehow become negotiable. At the same time, there is so much politicization of scientific issues that clearly something has to change in the way that science is conveyed to the public. One thing is clear: the facts are not enough. If science is ever going to have the influence it deserves in the choices made by this country and its citizens, it will not get there through science-splaining.