AAAS workshop seeks ways to engage the religious public

For several years now the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has been engaging the religious public — seeking to learn more about how people of faith perceive scientific work and scientists themselves, developing models that explore common ground between church leaders and researchers, and training scientists in effective listening and communication.

They have taken their workshops to several gatherings and the AAAS meeting this year offered more than one opportunity to learn best practices in sharing work that has a bearing on informed public policy and ethical decision-making.

The February 17 session that I attended in Washington, D.C. was a full afternoon rather than the 90 minutes of most other presentations. It was also designed for interaction at small roundtables to reinforce the methods discussed.

My table included several graduate students, a retired scientist and a retired clergy. The leaders were Rob O’Malley, from the Dialogue on Science Ethics & Religion (DoSER) and Gemima Philippe, Center for Public Engagement with Science & Technology.  

We began with a look at the style of communication common among researchers. In professional circles, they generally present a study with background information and share the supporting details of their research data. Then they are prepared to present the results and offer conclusions.

When this study is shared with the public, the preferred starting point is the bottom line — what did the study show/prove? Second, people want to know why the results matter to them and the wider society. Only then are they ready to hear the supporting data.

There are other presentation factors beyond the actual content. When scientists are perceived to be on a lofty perch, talking down to the populace, effective communication is limited. There are better models of learning that build relationships of trust and learning (in both directions). Meaningful interactions will acknowledge the benefits and limitations of science, respond to issues and concerns, and listen to and respect all members of the conversation.

Participants in the workshop were urged to better understand the religious public, beginning with the data that cites that 73% of Americans identify as “religious” and see it as an important component of their lives. Moreover, many religious communities sponsor opportunities for civic engagement and their members are involved in public issues and political matters.

Such information suggests that there are people ready to be engaged constructively if the right approach is developed. Some of the matters to consider are a balance between “big picture” ideas and the individual’s place in the issue, the short-term and long-term responses needed, and presenting measurable, realistic strategies.

Data suggest that there is a high interest in news about scientific discoveries and there is still a high level of respect and support for scientific research. Yet there are significant gaps on some issues between the scientific consensus and the public perception (e.g., safety of GMO foods — 88% of scientists deem them safe for consumption, 37% of the public agree they are safe). In areas of divergence between scientific consensus and public perception such as climate change and evolution, only some of that disagreement can be attributed to science literacy.

Some of the stereotypes about scientists make them seem unapproachable or even cast them as potentially harmful. At the same time, many scientists treat all religious people as monolithic and isolated from the real world.

The perceived conflict between science and religion depends upon how the question is raised. According to a Pew Research survey, 59% of the U.S. public will say that generally science and religion are in conflict. However, when asked whether science sometimes conflicts with your own religious beliefs, only 30% answered “yes”.

Data was presented to explain the diversity in religious beliefs and practices, sometimes within the same faith tradition. Political affiliation and identity culture will also play a part in particular views of the world.

After learning as much as one can about the intended audience, the next step is to develop a clear message, using the three strategies that were named as “miniature, memorable, and meaningful.”

The “miniature” message focuses on common values that are easy to grasp. For instance, after a short-term city-wide water emergency in Atlanta, a public health and environmental safety professor named Dr. Karen Levy urged citizens to resume their trust in tap water delivery over switching to bottled water. She focused on issues of safety, cost and waste in advocating for public water sources. She distinguished her local situation from a more extensive systemic breakdown such as Flint and identified with the problem personally while also citing her ongoing work to achieve water safety in more challenging locales.

Scientists who communicate in a “memorable and meaningful” way will have a story that connects what they do with real life situations. They will share something of their own humanity in pursuing their work. And they will avoid using scientific jargon that tend to increase communication barriers.

Noted science communicator Katharine Hayhoe was cited as a reminder that dismissing or attacking core beliefs, values and concerns is usually counterproductive. Scientific knowledge is valued, but tensions around science topics are often grounded in identity, culture, and worldview. The conversation image used here is that of wishing to enter a house resting on pillars of faith, ethics, norms, and relationships. Rather than attempting to knock out one of those pillars to advance a position, seek to enter the main door of the community in respectful dialogue.

As we discussed these conversational approaches around our workshop tables, we reflected on places where people already gather and ways to begin the discussions. We learned about one ecologist, Nalini Nadkarni, who wanted to promote plant conversation. She was invited to a synagogue to participate in a dialogue about trees and plants referenced in the Torah. She acknowledged that trees have spiritual relevance, and that science can enrich the interpretation of that meaning. Practicing humility, she introduced herself as someone who was there to share and to learn.

Another outstanding example of outreach can be found at the Personal Genetics Education Project. Dr. Ting Wu, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, directs this project with insightful connections to the communities she addresses, involving them in ongoing collaboration. One of the stories she shares is her encounter in an inner-city classroom and her ability to listen and adapt her presentation to bridge the disconnect between her genetic research and the real lives of youth. She found that some churches were very patient with her and were willing to engage when she showed a respect for their presence in the community.

There is a growing body of resources for effective science communication. Websites at the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion and the Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology contain a variety of resources on communication skills with different audiences.

They also host twitter feeds, @AAAS_DoSER and @MeetAScientist for current workshop learnings.


Stephen Kolderup

Stephen Kolderup is a retired teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and a Board Member of the Presbyterian Association on Science, Technology, and the Christian Faith. He received a B.A. from Gettysburg College, majoring in Physics, and received an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. His last 19 years in ministry were devoted to transitional ministry, serving in 10 congregations and one council. He and his wife, Jan Hiland, now live in Savoy, Illinois and enjoy all of the educational and cultural opportunities at the University of Illinois.

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