It’s been said that love makes the world go ’round, but I’d argue that communication might be a close second. Our ability to communicate ideas, facts, and feelings underlies a great deal of our interpersonal relationships and our society as a whole.
Science communication in particular has become near and dear to my heart as an early career scientist. There are generally two kinds of people I encounter when talking to non-scientists about science. The first group is comprised of people who are curious and smart, and need scientific writing that treats them as such. This is generally the vast majority of people I meet (perhaps by selection bias1). The second group, which can overlap with the first, believes in the good of science as a general abstract concept but consistently dismisses the highly trained workforce carrying out the scientific mission. Some of this comes from the backfire effect, in which providing someone with objective evidence that goes against their worldview actually causes them to dig in deeper to their opinions. For many scientists, who frequently have to abandon opinions in the presence of data that looks different than our hypothesis, this behavior is absolutely puzzling and frustrating.
When I mentioned on Facebook that I was interested in starting this blog, I got an overwhelmingly positive response. Despite having a list of no less than twenty post ideas provided by family and friends though, I felt uninspired to actually start writing. Today, on the anniversary of President Truman signing Executive Order 9981, Trump announced banning transgender individuals from serving in the military in any capacity. How he’ll address the thousands of transgender individuals already serving and risking their life for our country is unknown. I felt furious and I started outlining in my head a whole post about the science of gender and sexual identity, because surely if people just understood the science on this topic better, they’d come to see how harmful these kinds of attitudes are.
Then I came across this article in Slate that hit home for me as I was trying to wrap my head around all of it– while I can sit here all day and explain science to people (and that is certainly a mission of this blog), I’m not going to get anywhere if I don’t address how and why science matters as part of forming our worldviews. The science behind gender and sexual identity is still poorly understood by the general public (the most “benign” opposition I’ve heard is that trans individuals are ‘just mentally ill’), and maybe it would be worth devoting an entire post to in the future if I feel I can do it justice. But no one will care what “science says” (which does not support a gender binary) without connecting it to why that science matters as we contemplate policies and our values as a society.
Although there are actually great science writers out there doing amazing work (as a neuroscientist, one of my favorites is Neuroskeptic), most of the popular press science coverage we see tends to be a deluge of pseudo science (10 detoxes to try this weekend!) to sensationalized exaggerations (what junk food am I supposed to be eating this week to cure cancer and look 25 forever?). What gets lost in the mix is the how and why of science. How do we reach our conclusions from the data? How can we embrace the inherent uncertainty of science while understanding scientific consensus? Why do we talk about “evidence” and not “proof”, but still believe it is important to act on that evidence?
With all that in mind, this weekend I’ll be hanging out in a coffee shop somewhere in the Pacific Northwest taking a stab at that mission. Any comments, questions, or critiques you have as I toil away– I’d love to hear it.
1 Selection bias means that the subset you are looking at is not representative of the greater whole (for example, the people you know compared to all the people on the planet). In this case, it means that my friends are highly likely to be awesome people which may not be representative of how common awesome people exist in the world.