So… How Does Science Make You Feel?

, , former science communication officer | March 26, 2014, 1:18 pm EST
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The “just the facts” approach doesn’t always get the job done when it comes to communicating science. But not every scientist is comfortable talking about their values and beliefs when presenting their work to the public. One technique they can use is to flip the script and ask audiences to talk about their values, instead.

Take evolution, for instance. It can bring up complex feelings, even for those of us who wholeheartedly accept the science. Knowing that other primates are our cousins — and that we’re more distantly related to bacteria, starfish, and all life on Earth — is a startling revelation because it makes us question what we define as special about being human.

Fox’s Carl-Sagan-inspired Cosmos reboot tackled this subject head-on last week when Neil DeGrasse Tyson asked viewers to consider why we sometimes feel slightly embarrassed about our chimpanzee cousins, just as we would some of our own blood relatives. About 16 minutes into the series’ second episode, Tyson acknowledged that feeling when he said, “There’s an understandable human need to distance ourselves from them.”

Then he asks, “But what about our kinship with the trees? How does that make you feel?

Neil Degrasse Tyson promoting the Cosmos reboot, which is airing on Fox and National Geographic. Photo: Riedsa/Wikimedia Commons

The question doesn’t judge the audience for accepting or rejecting science. It doesn’t tell people what to think. Instead, the question invites people to consider how we integrate science into our view of the world, along with our beliefs, attitudes, values and, yes, feelings.

So much science, so many feels

Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting Jeffery Kiehl, an atmospheric scientist who also holds a degree in psychology. He told me that when he gives presentations about climate change, he pauses and asks the audience: ‘So…how does this make you feel?’

He said this opens up a conversation that normally doesn’t happen during pure science presentations. Instead of delivering a PowerPoint lecture and taking a few questions, Kiehl leads his audience in conversation: Are people worried about rising seas? Do they feel guilty about their electricity use? Are they angry at fossil fuel companies? What changes have they noticed where they live? What, if anything, do they think we should do about climate change locally or nationally?

The question takes climate science out of the politicized “accept it or reject it” box and instead helps people integrate scientific evidence into their thinking about the world around them.

Similarly, some people’s fears about vaccinating their children are rooted in feelings about the pharmaceutical industry, mandatory vaccinations, and their perception of whether or not their peers are also vaccinating. It might not be a bad idea at all for a pediatrician to ask a hesitant parent how they feel about vaccinations before discussing the potential risks that come with skipping them.

Scientists as partners in democratic dialogues

Asking audiences how scientific evidence makes them feel gets at people’s personal values, which is territory scientists usually avoid. And that’s why it’s so powerful. It can help scientists connect with people on a deeper level.

There’s some evidence that people view scientists as highly competent, but not very warm or sympathetic. In reality, most scientists do care very much about their communities. Asking audiences questions about their beliefs and feelings can help people see science for what it is: an incredibly useful tool that we can integrate into our thinking about the world around us, even if we approach scientific topics with divergent values and feelings. It can also appropriately cast scientists as partners in a democratic dialogue rather than ivory tower elites.

At the same time, when scientists understand the values through which audiences’ are interpreting their work, they can do a much better job communicating with them. And what better way to learn about your audiences values than to ask?

So…how does that make you feel?

Posted in: Science and Democracy, Science Communication

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  • Jerold T.

    Well, this ancient question has been answered thousands of years ago. But shamanism has been replaced by science. So, as a result, we get to start all over again.
    I feel extremely related to all life on this Earth. I always have. I have walked with skunk families, they’re children seem to love me. I walk amongst yellow jackets and bees, they hit me in flight and scan my aura. Never been stung.
    Science is not a thing, it is a way. It is sense with an eye in the middle. That watchful eye is removed through technological applications that ignore the sense. It’s all about I now.
    So when you ask, What do I think of science? It is no different than what I think of an idiot. Someone who focuses on a task with no thought for the results in many cases. Real science preserves the Earth and it’s myriad connections.
    Concerned Scientists are real scientists, all else are just ego dancing monkeys. But I do feel related to even those primate ego, dancing folk. I look at Monsanto, for one, as a group of spoiled children in need of a good spanking. No need to hate them, just straighten them out. The skunk children and bees will thank you for that.
    Which is better? The right hand, the left hand? Magic, science? One against the other gives the clap. How unfortunate we let our ego’s direct us instead of of our well connected hearts
    When magic gave birth to the eight paths of what we call science, we had Pyramids and stone circles that defy our modern logic. The church came and diminished magic, we were put on the path of environmental destruction.
    No matter what science tells us, magic and spirit are essentual to the human experience. LIfe evades definition for some reason. I know that reason, do you?