Scientists Work on Public Trust

Concerns about the public’s attitudes inspire scientists to try instruction techniques that give students room for religious beliefs

President Donald Trump has appointed several cabinet members hostile to climate science, and both he and a Republican-controlled Congress are developing policies that could slash federal spending on research. In response, some scientists attending a large international conference this past weekend in Boston did something usually only practiced by paleontologists and geologists: They went outside.

Scientists are rethinking communication in the Trump era. One recent study suggests that biology teachers could minimize conflict between science and religious beliefs with just a little engagement in the classroom.

Visual by iStock.com

A few hundred scientists, many in town for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, decided not to wait for the much-debated March for Science, set for April 22 in Washington, D.C., and participated in a local preview version of the event on Sunday. They were joined by local science supporters.

The demonstration put a public face on more than a dozen sessions at the conference focused on gaining more trust among non-scientists, doing a better job at communicating findings to lay people, and addressing concerns about policies that reject evidence-based science.

Public trust in robust scientific findings, especially about climate change, might be higher were it not for well-financed campaigns to undermine their credibility. Such efforts have been detailed by the Harvard University science historian Naomi Oreskes and her co-author, Erik M. Conway, in their 2010 book “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.”  Oreskes spoke at the AAAS meeting and at the Sunday gathering.

Fewer than two hours before that demonstration, two education researchers reported some encouraging findings during a session on how to engage people who don’t trust science. Their results analyzed recent projects that have succeeded in bridging a gap between the doubts of some college students regarding evolution, and the broad scientific consensus that accepts evolution as established fact.

The projects built on interview data from 2014-2015 revealing that most evolutionary biology instructors dodge discussions of such conflicts with their students, said M. Elizabeth Barnes, a graduate research fellow at Arizona State University. Tension can often arise in biology classrooms because the vast majority of Americans believe in God, whereas only about a quarter of biologists harbor such beliefs.

So, in a recent experiment involving a two-week module with 60 students in an introductory biology class, an instructor acknowledged that students might feel uncomfortable about the topic of evolution. And students were encouraged, rather than discouraged, to discuss their views about religion and evolution. Moreover, students learned about the range of positions held by scientists, from the evangelical to the atheistic, and even “theistic evolution” — a belief that God is behind the mechanics of species adaptation and evolution.

Survey results revealed that the two-week course had reduced by half the number of college students who perceived a conflict between religious beliefs and evolutionary biology before the module began. The results were published in the February issue of The American Biology Teacher.

In response to instructors’ concerns about having limited classroom time for an additional two-week module, researchers reduced the encounter to just 10 minutes in a follow-up experiment. Preliminary data drawn from student journal entries, homework, and interviews — and presented at the AAAS meeting last weekend — suggested that even that brief exposure reduced perceived conflict between religion and evolution among both religious students and non-religious students.

National policy could advocate for such educational approaches, Barnes said, which might “increase acceptance of evolution among our students, future teachers, and hopefully among our future political leaders, which is so important in our current time,” she added.

The session also featured Oreskes, who outlined her strategies for communicating climate science with the public: Keep it simple, tell a personal story, and make it stick by acknowledging the emotional content of messages. All these approaches rub against the scientific method, but Oreskes told the crowd, “Get over it. More seriously, communicating science is not the same as doing science.”

As the discussion wound down, bioethicist Françoise Baylis of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia noted that some scientists fear that full transparency about the minutiae of basic research could put off public support for research funding.

Oreskes drew laughter and applause with her concluding rejoinder: “Maybe we need a session next year on engaging scientists who don’t trust the public.”

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