Episode 7 | Are Scientists (Partly) To Blame For Distrust In Science? August 22, 2021
GUEST: Dr. Faith Kearns, author, Getting to the Heart of Science Communication: A Guide to Effective Engagement
Are scientists partly to blame for the public’s distrust in science? Is ineffective messaging leading to misinformation? Our guest, Dr. Faith Kearns, has spent most of her career developing science communication projects for government agencies, scientific associations, and academic institutions. In this episode, we talk about her latest book, Getting to the Heart of Science Communication: A Guide to Effective Engagement, and how scientists and the public can more effectively engage with one another and discuss the societal and environmental challenges facing us.
Throughout her multifaceted career as a scientist and science communication practitioner, Dr. Faith Kearns has worked to engage the public in understanding science, as well as more effectively working with the scientific community in ways that build trust, equity, and accountability. She has worked to link the science with policy advocacy efforts to help scientists and the public best address the environmental and societal challenges of today. Presently, she coordinates research and outreach programs for the California Institute for Water Resources. She also is a published author that focuses on water, fire, and climate. She is a co-host of the podcast Water Talk.
Getting to the Heart of Science Communication: A Guide to Engagement
The Hard Stuff – Dr. Kearns’ newsletter. It focuses on the scientific communication around “emotional and contentious issues.”
BRAD PHILLIPS, HOST, THE SPEAK GOOD PODCAST:
“Trust the science!” “I believe in science!”
Phrases like those are emblazoned on T-shirts and are spread throughout social media feeds. But do they reflect what Americans really think?
In May 2020, the Pew Research Center asked Americans that question – whether they trusted medical scientists and scientists in general. What they found is that Republicans and Democrats answer those questions very differently. Just 31 percent of Republicans said they had a great deal of trust in medical scientists, in contrast to 53 percent of Democrats. The gap is even wider when it comes to scientists in general, with only 27 percent of Republicans expressing a great deal of trust, compared to 52 percent of Democrats.
The same divide exists when it comes to specific topics, such as climate change. In another survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, in the spring of 2020, Americans were asked whether they thought climate change is a major threat to the well-being of the United States. Yes, said Democrats. Eighty-eight percent of them agreed. But only 31 percent of Republicans said the same.
There are many reasons to explain these differences. Here are a few:
Some politicians seek to curry favor with voters by framing common sense as a binary debate. Environmental conservation or economic growth. Vaccine passports or individual freedom. Supporting climate change friendly legislation or supporting workers in the extractive industries. Some of those debates are held in good faith. Other times, they’re the result of cynical politicians inflaming their audiences with a false choice in the hopes of getting a few extra votes.
Some misinformation channels intentionally send false messages about what is and isn’t true. Remember hydroxychloroquine, the so-called miracle drug that then President Trump claimed would cure COVID-19? The NIH formally concluded in late 2020 that the drug provides no clinical benefit to hospitalized patients. But that fact had little chance of breaking through when a motivated politician with the world’s largest megaphone used every channel available to him to promote a sense of hope – false hope – to try to improve his reelection chances.
Some people are skeptical of authority in general – and sometimes, with good reason. They’ve seen government officials involving the United States in wars under false pretenses. They’ve seen politicians making trade deals that make a lot of money for their donors while hollowing out their once-thriving communities. They listened when scientists told them it was safer to eat margarine than butter, only to learn that the opposite was true. First responders were told that the air around Ground Zero was safe after 9/11, only to find that they contracted terminal illnesses after breathing it in. To be sure, it’s good that the scientific process requires scientists to question previous results, incorporate newer, better data, and publish more accurate information as it emerges, and to be transparent about the limits of earlier research, which sometimes means earlier conclusions are invalidated. Still, it’s understandable why some people might have grown weary from what appears to be conflicting and ever-changing guidance.
Some people are members of communities that have been victimized by science. Most famously, the Tuskegee Study, which focused on the natural history of syphilis. It began in the 1930s with 600 African American men – and lasted for 40 years. The men were not informed about the true purpose of the study. They were never told that they would never be treated – despite the fact that penicillin became widely available in the 1940s, which could have treated their syphilis.
So, there are a lot of intersecting, overlapping, and complex reasons to explain why Americans view the credibility of scientists – or lack thereof – so differently.
But I’d like to throw in a different cause. What if one important reason has to do with how scientific information is communicated by the scientific community itself? What if the manner in which they’ve been communicating information is backfiring and helping to fuel some of the mistrust?
I’m not suggesting any malice there, but rather a lack of preparation. After all, most college science curricula don’t involve multiple semesters of teaching students how to communicate scientific results to their audiences. And imagine that you are a scientist trying to persuade people to get the COVID-19 vaccine. What would you do? If you are like most people, you’d probably share data about the safety of the vaccine, or the danger of COVID-19 and its variants. But a facts only presentation has its limits.
What about this instead: a scientist using soft persuasion, respect, empathy, listening, and understanding as the cornerstone of their communications? I’m going to play for you audio from a video released on Twitter by Dr. Kimberly Manning, a physician and educator specializing in internal medicine and pediatrics at Emory University in Atlanta. She is a Black woman – and it seems clear that she’s speaking primarily to other African Americans who have valid reasons for their vaccine hesitancy.
(DR. KIMBERLY MANNING SOUNDBITE)
Hey everybody, I’m down here at Grady Hospital and I just wanted to send a quick message to my friends, my fam, and anybody out there who is still in the process of deliberating about whether or not they’ll be vaccinated against COVID-19. I’m not trying to judge you. I’m not about to tell you about how many people have died and all the awful things that could happen, because I know that for many of us in your lived day-to-day experience a lot of awful things could happen. Right? Instead, what I want to tell you is that whatever reason that you feel right now that has caused you to still be taking some time to think that thing through, know that it’s valid. We do have some new variants that are moving into the United States and the good news is that our vaccines do work against them. But, they are more contagious and it’s possible that that could really wreak havoc upon the people who are not yet vaccinated or who are still deliberating, which means you. There are people who will go with you if you’re nervous. There are people who answer questions if you got questions. And, especially who will just celebrate you or not make a big deal out of it, if you want that, too. However you feel, wherever you’re at, we get it because you’re you. But, if you’re still thinking about it, might I appeal to you and say this might be a good time to consider going to one of the many places where you can get vaccinated. Because I think we could surge again and I just want you to be protected, fam. Alright, bye-bye.
(END OF SOUNDBITE)
That’s not the usual way that scientists communicate. As my guest argues today, there are real-life consequences when scientists, often armed with life-saving information, go about communicating it in the wrong way. And, as she will explain, some of what they are communicating is incomplete, because they’re too often they ask the wrong questions or fail to ask them to critical groups of people who might better inform their research.
My guest is Dr. Faith Kearns, a scientist and science communication practitioner, who focuses primarily on water, wildfire, and climate change in the western United States. She holds a doctorate in environmental science, policy, and management from the University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of Getting to the Heart of Science Communication: A Guide to Effective Engagement.
So Faith, first of all, I really enjoyed your book, Getting to the Heart of Science Communication: A Guide to Effective Engagement. I thought it was provocative and really challenged a lot of the current conventions regarding scientific communications. And one of the things you mentioned is the deficit approach to communication and I’ll paraphrase, but basically what that means is this assumption that if people are lacking information and we provide it, they’ll know what to do, they’ll know how to act. And yet we know, I mean, just looking at, for example, smoking, just because you tell people smoking is bad for you, isn’t enough. It takes more than that to lead to meaningful behavior change. So if accurate information alone, isn’t enough, what is,
Well, I guess it depends a little bit on what your goal is, right? So, when we think about communication, it’s a little bit hard to measure your success, if you don’t have an idea of what you’re aiming for. And so if your goal is behavior change, which is something I actually shy away from quite a bit, because this actually really goes to the heart of what I’m talking about in the book. Which is that people are coming at all of these very complex situations with their own sets of information. And those of us who consider ourselves experts don’t necessarily have all the information that we need. And so even approaching this from the perspective of somebody else needs to be doing something in order to be a better person is in and of itself something that I don’t think is a great goal to even be having to begin with. I think that just as a starting point is a different kind of communication than scientists are used to thinking about.
Okay. I have to admit, as a person who has trained thousands of sciences through the years, this is mind blowing to me, too. So, I need to explore this with you a little bit, because frankly, I think I’m probably falling into some of the traps you identified in your book. So, let’s take something like climate change. We know the climate is increasing. We know there’s too much carbon in the atmosphere. And so, of course, I would think of it as behavior change if somebody is engaged in an act that is doing harm to the planet in some way, I would think we want to try to change that behavior. How do you think about that issue and, and where do you think perhaps that that type of thinking is too narrow?
This is a really important question and one that I still struggle with all the time, so I’m not going to pretend that I have all the answers. And yet at the same time, I think we have focused on individual behavior in a lot of these environment spaces, including climate. So a lot of it ends up at the behavioral level coming down to individual action and individual choice, right? So, we focus on everybody needing to change their light bulbs or drive less or all of that kind of thing. And while those things are helpful and important, they clearly are not enough. And so even focusing at that level on sort of incentivizing behavior, nudging behavior to me is just, we’re wasting time on that.
I think people have already gotten the message that they need to do what they can and at least in my universe, and maybe I talked to a different set of people, but so many people are already doing those things. They are concerned. We have this tendency to think that people do not care, that they’re apathetic, that they’re just not interested. And I don’t find that at all. I work on water and fire and people will show up to a church on a Saturday morning to talk about how they can start, can conserve water in their landscaping at home. If that’s not interest in a topic, I don’t know what is. To me, I think what we’re talking about is how do we have people engage on these issues in ways that aren’t predetermined by us, meaning people who sort of claim expertise, and how can we engage people in taking action in ways that feel good to them and make sense to them. And also force us to kind of stretch beyond the individual level to more systemic level changes, which is, again, I think you’re seeing that push within the climate movement, people kind of stepping back and going, what do we need to do to get fossil fuels reduced? It’s no longer a sole focus on driving. It’s a focus on fossil fuel companies, right? I think that’s the kind of momentum you’re seeing in that space.
If I’m hearing you correctly, the communication is so often, as you said, geared toward the individual: This is what you can do differently. And it is, and I don’t want to downplay it, but in some ways, at least in the global picture, it’s small ball. You’re talking about things like a light bulb or driving a Prius or composting on an individual level. I’m not saying people shouldn’t do that, but am I correct in hearing you that communicators more often should be focused on the larger, more systemic issues?
Yes. And even I, myself ,have to struggle with this. So,we’re facing another drought in California, which may be the same ongoing drought that we’ve had for a long time now. And people really want to help, so they get very much into how do I reduce my water use at home, by taking a shorter shower or saving my warm-up shower water. While all of those things if you feel like doing them are great, but they really, really are not going to solve the long-term issues that we have. So, I’ve been trying to direct people to ways that they can get involved in actually making these decisions, because a lot of what we’re working on is emergent. We don’t actually even have the answers. And so I think that’s another fault of expertise is this idea that if we could just move things around like chess pieces, it would all get solved. And that is absolutely not the case. And I think the sooner we can admit that the faster we might be able to sort of move on.
I’m also struck another of the regular communications conventions that you questioned. And actually, I agree with you entirely on this one. It still is a challenge, but you say that the phrase, the general public, is just so broad as to be meaningless. I agree with you on that. But you think about that in different ways than I do. So talk to me a little bit, if you would, about how should we be thinking about our audiences and those people with whom we’re communicating.
Yeah. I struggle with that term. A lot of social scientists have started to use the word “publics” by adding an “s” and at least nominally indicating that there are multiple publics. That there is no monolithic general public. So that’s one sort of step in the right direction. And what I generally find … so, in science, in particular, there’s this extreme shorthand about communicating to the public. And I think that word choice is so interesting because people often use the word to which very much is not the word with, right, and even that alone is an yet another change that we can make – communicating with. But the way that I think about it when it comes to scientists in particular, other forms of expertise, is that we are all the public or the publics in different ways.
So, for myself, for example, I’m an ecologist by training. And when I have to try to understand what’s happening with COVID, I am absolutely a public. I don’t have any special understanding as a scientist of what’s going on with COVID, because it’s so specialized. And so to me, I just think we should have a greater amount of, I don’t know if empathy is the right word, but certainly just an understanding that we’re all a public at a certain point in time. And so, we can actually figure out how we like to be communicated with, by just looking at it that way. How do I like to be communicated with? And I think the word audience for me is also similarly challenging. Although I agree with you that, as a short hand, it’s very difficult to get around, but this idea that you’re sort of giving a performance for an audience is really a limiting idea. And again, there are people who think in very sophisticated ways about what audiences are. But when we use that kind of shorthand, I don’t think that’s what we’re referring to. We are sort of having, we have this sense that there’s this rapt audience just waiting to hear from us, which, as we all know, is just absolutely not the case. I don’t know if it ever has been, but it certainly isn’t in 2021.
I agree with you that words often have an important meaning and that seemingly semantic difference of communicating to and communicating with it really indicates the person’s state of mind and how they’re thinking about the communication. So, I do think it sends an important message. And so this two-way communication, and you give some examples in the book and I’d love to hear what some of those are, but one of the things in our world that I think about is so many of the mediums through which people communicate are one-way channels. So, taking the idea of a media interview where ultimately the journalist is only going to take a 10-second soundbite and plug it into a story, this really is a one-way communication. And so, I read your book and agreed with your premise, but was unsure how to put that into action when the medium itself is a one-way channel.
Sure. So I think, with newspapers, you know, that form of interview, the thing that we’re doing right now, although you and I, at least, are sort of having a conversation. And I note this in every talk that I give, where this model of the sage on the stage, think of a TED Talk or something like that, has really proliferated and it’s really challenging to get around it because often when I’m talking, I’m performing that role, as I’m saying that it’s a challenge. Again, I don’t think that there’s any easy way around it, except to say that that’s only one small way in which I work. It’s a very tiny part of what I actually do for a living. The rest of that time is very much spent in, I wouldn’t even call it two-way communication, I mean I think of it as much more complex than that. We’re in conversations with people who are in other conversations in conversations with other people. So, it’s really this multi-pathway conversation that’s happening and evolving all the time. And so really being in that conversation is super key. And so, there are so many different ways to think about it, but one of the big focuses in my book is on listening, listening as a practice, listening, not as just a balm – that we listen and absorb everything and it’s all fine and great. The very next chapter in the book is about conflict. And the fact that when we listen really well, we are bound to come up with internal and external conflict, because we’re all different from each other, even people who agree, right? Like you and I are having this conversation right now, we generally agree, but there’s space in there to have a conversation across difference. The tools of just learning how to give a great talk or give a great media interview, which is, in general, science communication has stopped to there. And for me, anyway, what I have found in my own personal experiences, is that is just the beginning.
You mentioned listening. And what I really liked in your book is you used the phrase, “Listening is good science.” It’s not listening for its own sake to make people feel better or feel heard it’s that too, but it’s that it leads to better, more productive results. I’m wondering if you can maybe provide an example of when you’ve seen, or even personally been engaged with a moment where listening led to a better result.
It happens to me all the time. But one really profound moment that I have had in my life was working. I work in what’s known as cooperative extension, which is a part of the scientific enterprise in the United States where we really worked directly in and with communities on a multitude of issues. It’s a very different piece of how science is normally done. But I was giving a talk on this topic. I was part of a panel, actually, I think, where we were having a discussion and I was sort of vehemently arguing what I’m talking about right now. And, someone who I didn’t know at the time, who was a cooperative extension specialist in Hawaii who works with ranchers who are often quite conservative – he himself is originally from Wyoming – he was basically started out in this meeting saying, there’s no way that I can talk to the people I work with about climate change. It will ruin these relationships that I have, which a lot of, of what we do in cooperative extension is relationship based, but it can, there are ways that that can backfire. It can become very gatekeeping, very protective over those relationships in ways that actually can be unhelpful. And so, as I spoke with him, or as I gave this talk, he actually stood up and I really thought I was going to get a very antagonistic question from him, just his stance and everything else. But when he stood up, he actually said, this is so interesting to me because I have always viewed it as like this would break the relationships. But what I hear you saying is that I actually have an ethical obligation because of the relationships that I have with these ranchers to talk to them about climate change. I do not want people to come back to me 10 years from now and say, “Why didn’t you tell us about this?” He had this real kind of a epiphany about it. And that sort of reshaped how he thinks about things. That was a beautiful moment of him actually listening to something that was really different from what he actually thought.
Yes. And I think that story also goes to why that voice of God template is so flawed, because if somebody had come in with that mask of expertise, proclaiming to know everything without a hearing what the person in the audience was thinking, what their concerns were, it probably would have been a much less effective moment. It certainly wouldn’t have been that epiphany.
You talk a bit in your book about the need for emotion. That, too, in science and scientific communication is … certainly emotion isn’t part of the scientific method. In your book, you talk about how the culture among many scientists is to view emotion itself as a weakness that interferes with rigorous data analysis and other forms of science. What role should emotion play? And how is there a place for emotion in a way that doesn’t undermine the ultimate trust that important publics, for lack of a better word, might have at how they perceive the science itself.
Sure. There’s a couple of questions in there, so I’ll try to get at all of them. But, for me, what the distinguishment that I’ve really try to make in the book is that I am absolutely not talking about inducing emotion in people. A lot of times when people hear me talk, they’ll think that I am talking about persuasion or something of that nature, but what I’m really talking about is contending with the actual emotion that’s just already there. While we can say even that the scientific enterprise isn’t emotional, it actually is incredibly emotional. Whether you get a grant or don’t. Whether you get good teaching evaluations or don’t. These are all – the whole thing is emotional. So that’s one layer. And then the other piece is we’re working on these issues that people have very, very, very strong feelings about. There’s absolutely no need to create any kind of emotional response to climate change to drought to wildfire. People are having emotions. And so, what I’m trying to argue is that that already is there, and it exists. It exists for both the scientists and for the people that we work with. And so, ignoring that is actually a denial on a fundamental level of our humanity. I think it doesn’t allow for a whole huge set of information to actually reach people or for us to adapt what we’re doing based on the emotional tenor or feedback that we’re getting. So I’m just arguing that subjectivity actually is fully existant already in science and denying that is very strange and actually detrimental in many cases to what we’re trying to do.
Yes, I worked with the head of a big international scientific body several years ago. And at the end of our time together, he had a revelation of sorts and in his a-ha moment, he said, “Ah, I’m supposed to be dispassionate about the science, but passionate when conveying the results in the meaning of that science. First of all, I thought that was profound and he really seemed to be transformed by that realization. I’m wondering if that squares with what you just said.
To a certain degree, it does, although I’ve been very convinced, Yanna Lambrinidou who plays quite a role in my book, actually, is an anthropologist, has really spent a lot of time saying to me, Faith, the scientific enterprise is actually emotional in every way. And so I think it even exists while you’re doing the work. And to sort of pretend that it doesn’t it’s just a denial of the actual experience. It’s all very emotional. I find there’s not a lot of need to add a lot of emotion beyond what you’re actually feeling to what you’re saying. These are very emotional topics. They just are. They have absolute direct meaning in people’s lives. And so, therefore, they’re going to come with a lot of feelings for all of us. And another big point that I’m trying to make is that especially for people like me who work in this very community engaged context, I’m not sitting in a lab somewhere coming up with models that don’t affect my life. I’ve had to evacuate wildfires. I talk about wildfires all the time, while also experiencing them. I’m communicating while I’m also choking on smoke. So there’s just, there’s not a lot of need to do anything other than deal with what’s actually happening.
And I know in your book, you talked about the wildfires. You talked about, in 2008, you had your own epiphany of sorts when you were talking about wildfires and you realized that there was kind of an emotional disconnect between you and the homeowners to whom you were speaking.
Yeah, so this is sort of an interesting thing, because I think here we are in 2021 and many people now understand this topic. Not only because fire, particularly in the Western U.S., has become so much more ubiquitous in the way that it’s affecting people, but also COVID, in particular, has really driven home how emotional some of these topics can be when you’re experiencing them yourself. But back then, which was only what 13 years ago (but) things are speeding up as we speak, but I was basically at a wildfire safety demonstration day, and some colleagues and I had just presented some information about how you can keep your home from burning down in a wildfire. And, we were also talking a little bit about some work that we were doing about the potential to shelter in place during a wildfire, because so many people do end up dying during the evacuation process.
So, it can be a very dangerous prospect. But what we didn’t pay attention to was that that community had just been through these exact issues several months before we were there. And I was sensing in this room that something was off, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. And I was very, very lucky that this man came up to me afterward. And although he didn’t use the words, he was basically saying, look your talk just traumatized our whole community again. We have that language now in a way that was harder to identify back then, but I spent a few years kind of really going what happened there until I could really put my finger on it, just based on my own experiences of trauma in ways that I had worked through it, that it was like, oh, right.
We just came in there and presented this stuff as if it was a game and not that this was happening to real people who were scared to death. And now that I’ve had my own experiences of that, it’s it’s absolutely terrifying. So, what I realized that day was just the way that we were doing things, which was the way we were trained, which was to be very dispassionate about things, was actually just totally detrimental to that community. And, ultimately, it was detrimental to our own work. So, again, not paying attention to that was, was making it so that we weren’t even being effective in what we were trying to do.
Right. You know, reading that story really made me reflect on one particular client engagement we had several years ago and wondering, not even wondering, I think I can safely conclude, we missed a really important piece. We were preparing – I have to be careful about how I talk about this – but we were preparing a government body to speak in town hall-style meetings to several people around the country who were directly impacted by some of the decisions that were being made in their communities. So that’s probably enough of a setup to make clear that the few hundred people that showed up were personally invested, highly emotional. Some of their fears were well-founded by the facts. Others were fears that were contrary to the facts, but nonetheless, they felt very real to them in that moment.
And, of course, as a presentation trainer and coach, we worked on what are the main messages? What are the talking points? How are you going to answer some of these challenging questions? And certainly, some of the importance of that communication was sharing with the people in the room, the work that had already been done, what the future plans were so that they knew. So there had to be information shared in that room. Reflecting on that while reading your book, it seems very clear to me that one thing we really missed is really discussing in the room with those people who are going to be on stage, what the emotions were of the people in the room and how to make sure that you meaningfully have a conversation, as you said, with them and not at them. And I’m curious, you know, as you hear that, if you’re preparing people for things like these potentially contentious town hall meetings, where you are the person on stage needing to share information, what would you do differently? What of the conventional ways, these types of things usually go, would you try to avoid?
So, again, not knowing the details of what you’re working on, the thing that pops into mind for me that I think about a lot is just this concept of relationship first. And so, I don’t know what that looks like in that particular context, but for me, the need to, and I’ve certainly been guilty of this as well. You sort of have this sense, like, we have to shove all this information at people so that we can then have this meaningful conversation, right? And we all do that all the time. We front-load things with tons of often terrifying information and then expect to sort of have a conversation afterward. And I think depending on how skilled people feel about working with emotions, cause I will say, I don’t think everybody needs to do this work. I don’t think everybody is equipped for it. I think that you can cause more harm than good sometimes. And so I don’t want to sort of go into this saying that all scientists or communicators should act as therapists who are going to run a session. But I do think for people who feel comfortable with it, the idea of starting from that place of like, there are many kinds of relationship first things that you can do. Have people, for example, talk to each other in pairs, in ways that acknowledge and at least have them feel heard by the person sitting next to them about what’s going on. You could do some kind of popcorn sharing, but the basic idea is that you acknowledge and contend with, in some way, those emotions. And the way that I have felt that most effectively is if people can feel heard. And, it doesn’t have to be by you. It can be by, like I said, a neighbor. It can be in a small group, but at the same time, just acknowledging that there is a very human element to this stuff in whatever way works in that context is the way to go in my mind.
And so when you operate by that principle of relationship first, it can often make those tried and true methods … they can be called into question. Do you really need to provide all that information? Are people already understanding something that you think they’re not right, because we’re also trained to give information that we assume that people need it. Maybe they don’t. We never even stopped to ask. Again, I think that deficit model makes it so that we have this sense that people don’t know things. And, at least in my world, I give people a lot more credit than that. I run across people constantly who know a lot and maybe they have one very specific question or they’re looking to tie some pieces of information together. But that assumption that people need this information dumped before you can get to anything important, I think is definitely something to call into question.
One of the things in your book that I really appreciated, as well, is that you’re very sensitive about power imbalances and specifically how they impact negatively communication. Can you talk about that a little bit and maybe provide an example of a typical power imbalance that could negatively impact communication?
I think power shows up in so many different ways in science communication. And one of the most obvious examples that I can come up with is the power imbalance between a patient and a doctor. And so, doctors will often think of themselves as do-gooders, right? And scientists in many realms also think of themselves this way, that we’re there to help. And that helping mentality can actually sometimes lead to a power imbalance, not take into account the power imbalances that actually exist. So, for example, a patient might feel unheard by a doctor and the doctor is sort of looking at things like are you complying with your medication and not really comprehending that they really are in power in that situation and that they perhaps aren’t listening well enough to a patient. And so that has led to a lot of patient-led advocacy that has actually transformed the medical establishment in many different ways.
And I think that’s true if you look at say climate science, for example, I think there’s been a real pushback on sort of the power of scientists to set the, the dialogue. And I see it every day. This is still very much an active sort of power imbalance that’s happening. I think scientists are very much, re-establishing the power that they have as sort of public facing experts on that issue. And I see advocates every day pushing back and sort of going, look, we all get the science. That’s not what this is about. It’s not what it’s about anymore, if it ever was. And so, you’re seeing a real power clash right there in very many ways every single day right now.
I would like to, since you spoke about conflict in your book, I would like to have a moment of respectful conflict. Just a disagreement of sorts with whether it’s true that people really do have the information they need. A few minutes ago, you said you generally believe they have a lot more than scientists give them credit for. Yet, using COVID as an example, I see people making the case that the mask actually traps the virus inside the mask. It makes it more likely that people would have gotten the coronavirus. People making the case that the coronavirus was no worse than the flu. One person I heard (was) saying we can’t give vaccines to kids because their DNA isn’t fully formed yet. Do we give people too much credit that they know the science? And don’t, we have to strike a balance between listening, but also providing them with information they currently lack but need, in order to make better decisions?
Yeah. And I think I actually agree with you. This is a really, really tricky point. When we think about, for example, climate denial, where there is no doubt that there has been a well-funded misinformation campaign that absolutely exists. And, at the same time, I think we’ve been so focused on it that we sort of have missed the forest for the trees in terms of the numbers of people who actually are on board. And so to me, it’s more of a question of how much you focus on that level of discord that exists. I think we give it way more energy than is actually there. So, I absolutely think information is important. There’s no doubt that we have to have a basic facts and information, but I also think we’re dealing with a much more sophisticated communications landscape than making those kinds of like binaries ,basically, that because people aren’t doing a certain thing that we think they should do, it’s because of a lack of information. When you talk about COVID, when you talk about climate, you know, these are, well-funded information campaigns – disinformation, misinformation campaigns – that I think the target is probably misplaced on the individual.
If we’re talking about fighting fire with fire, taking things that are produced by powerful entities and then expecting individuals to somehow compensate for that. Again, it’s just a misplaced level of energy. The other thing I will say about conflict that I think is really important for people to understand is that there is a way in which these binaries are the absolute thing that creates the conflict. And so having no room for nuance within a conversation about, say, masks and when they’re effective and when they’re not, and needing to go back to this thing that “masks are always effective and we should always wear them and that’s just the way it is.” Because, you’re trying to compensate for some questioning about it is again, I just very much think it’s the wrong tactic for dealing with conflict, which is why I think it’s just very important to identify conflict as playing a role in these communication efforts. Because if we don’t even talk about conflict, then we’re, we’re talking about facts. When the issue isn’t really about facts,
You brought something up in your book. There was a great example. I hope I’m saying the name correctly. Is it MIla Marshall?
MIla (pronunciation: Meela) Marshall, yeah.
A doctoral candidate in ecology at the University of Illinois in Chicago. She wrote, or she said to you, people are sometimes relying on misinformation. When you’re trying to talk about difficult subjects, you have to understand that you are asking people to acknowledge there is a chance that something they believe to be true told to them by people that they love and respect is wrong. When we untether people’s realities and connections to other humans, we have to be careful. We can provide accurate information to people, but there also has to be somebody standing in the gap prepared to support them through their emotions, around how it feels to be corrected, the embarrassment of going hard for what you thought was true.
Yeah, you reading that just gave me goosebumps. It was such a profound moment when we have that conversation, when she said that. Because she was really talking about people who are very fact-based and who are operating just from a different set of information. And she gets very profoundly, in just a few sentences, into this complex web of how we come to know what we know and what it means to have to contend with having something that you think you deeply know, be wrong. And, that we don’t again take the emotional toll of that and how it can actually break our relationships, break who we trust as authority, break who we trust in general. And so having some deep, deep, I mean she’s talking about a very deep compassion and maybe that’s not even a strong enough word for times when that happens, because then your whole sense of yourself … I mean, this is an identity thing, right? And so breaking your sense of who you thought you were and how you know things and who you think knows things that’s a pretty profound questioning of self. I really appreciated that she brought that up the way that she did.
I think of what you said in terms of a permission structure. You have to give people a place, a platform on which they can stand and say, “okay, I feel safe enough to rethink a previously held view.” And it takes somebody especially skilled to be able to provide that step for them to be able to take. Youget at this in your book, but I gather that most scientific curriculum in colleges and universities don’t teach that kind of deep listening and empathy. Is there any sign that these types of topics are being taught more frequently now?
I think I wrote or gave a first talk on the topic of listening in about 2010, 2009. And I will say during the time that has elapsed since then, I have certainly seen a lot more references to the idea of listening. But, it’s been very colloquial. It has been in the sense of like, we need to listen to people and sort of empathize with them. But I tend to agree with Dr. Lambrinidou in my book that we can’t dilute it to that level of just sort of empathetically listening to people and actually MIla gets to that issue as well. You can’t just listen to people with this sort of sense of, “oh, yes, of course, you’re right.” There are times when that listening and the relationship requires something much, much deeper of you and much scarier and much harder. And so that part of things, I do not think, for the most part, that we are teaching at all. I have tried to present in the book many cases of people who I think are at the vanguard of doing some of that listening work. I think we’re just at the beginning of a real movement around it. And there are places to pull from, for example, just the idea of ethnography and there are lots of tools for sort of listening. But I think even many people who do ethnographic work would argue that there’s still quite a ways to go in terms of the biggest question I sort of pose in that chapter is what do we do with what we hear? Because there is a way that listening can become, especially for scientists, something that’s very much like look out for another extractive process. It’s just like, oh, I heard so so-and-so and often not even attributing. It just becomes part of what we know, what we’ve extracted or what we’ve heard from somebody and move on. Then we write a paper about it without attributing it to that person. There are a lot of deep ethical issues, and I don’t think that we can overlook that. And no, I don’t think that level is at all being taught anywhere that I know of.
Well, I’d like to make a pitch for your book. Your book is Getting to the Heart of Science Communication: A Guide to Effective Engagement. And what I will say is, even though you wrote this with a scientific viewpoint or a scientific community in mind, as I read this, I thought this is something that people in industry, especially those whose products impact specific communities; and people, communicators, and practitioners working for nonprofits that are not scientific in nature can pull a lot of good information from. I really appreciate you coming on and discussing your book. Dr. Faith Kearns, thank you very much.
Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate your engagement with the material.Back to All Episodes
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