Thanks for the Facts. Now Sell Them.

By Matthew C. Nisbet and Chris Mooney
Sunday, April 15, 2007

If the defenders of evolution wanted to give their creationist adversaries a boost, it's hard to see how they could do better than Richard Dawkins, the famed Oxford scientist who had a bestseller with "The God Delusion." Dawkins, who rose to fame with his lucid expositions of evolution in such books as "The Selfish Gene," has never gone easy on religion. But recently he has ramped up his atheist message, further mixing his defense of evolution with his attack on belief.

Leave aside for a moment the validity of Dawkins's arguments against religion. The fact remains: The public cannot be expected to differentiate between his advocacy of evolution and his atheism. More than 80 percent of Americans believe in God, after all, and many fear that teaching evolution in our schools could undermine the belief system they consider the foundation of morality. Dawkins not only reinforces and validates such fears -- baseless though they may be -- but lends them an exclamation point.

We agree with Dawkins on evolution and admire his books, so we don't enjoy singling him out. But he stands as a particularly stark example of scientists' failure to explain hot-button issues, such as global warming and evolution, to a wary public.

Scientists excel at research; creating knowledge is their forte. But presenting this knowledge to the public is something else altogether. It's here that scientists and their allies are stumbling in our information-overloaded society -- even as scientific information itself is being yanked to center stage in high-profile debates.

Scientists have traditionally communicated with the rest of us by inundating the public with facts; but data dumps often don't work. People generally make up their minds by studying more subtle, less rational factors. In 2000 Americans didn't pore over explanations of President Bush's policies; they asked whether he was the kind of guy they wanted to have a beer with.

So in today's America, like it or not, those seeking a broader public acceptance of science must rethink their strategies for conveying knowledge. Especially on divisive issues, scientists should package their research to resonate with specific segments of the public. Data dumping -- about, say, the technical details of embryology -- is dull and off-putting to most people. And the Dawkins-inspired "science vs. religion" way of viewing things alienates those with strong religious convictions. Do scientists really have to portray their knowledge as a threat to the public's beliefs? Can't science and religion just get along? A "science and religion coexistence" message conveyed by church leaders or by scientists who have reconciled the two in their own lives might convince even many devout Christians that evolution is no real threat to faith.

We made a similar argument in a recent commentary article published by the journal Science. While many agreed with our perspective, some took a more critical tone. Indeed, those most piqued by our argument tended (like Dawkins) to be strong defenders of evolution who are also critical of religious belief.

Paul Zachary "PZ" Myers, a biology professor at the University of Minnesota at Morris, wrote on his blog, Pharyngula, that if he took our advice, "I'd end up giving fluff talks that play up economic advantages and how evolution contributes to medicine . . . and I'd never talk about mechanisms and evidence again. That sounds like a formula for disaster to me -- it turns scientists into guys with suits who have opinions, and puts us in competition with lawyers and bureaucrats in the media." Myers also accused us of appeasing religion.

Yet he misses the point. There will always be a small audience of science enthusiasts who have a deep interest in the "mechanisms and evidence" of evolution, just as there will always be an audience for criticism of religion. But these messages are unlikely to reach a wider public, and even if they do they will probably be ignored or, in the case of atheistic attacks on religion, backfire.

We're not saying that scientists and their allies should "spin" information; doing that would only harm their credibility. But discussing issues in new ways and with new messengers can be accomplished without distorting the underlying science. Good communication is by its very nature informative rather than misleading. Making complicated issues personally meaningful will activate public support much more effectively than blinding people with science.

Global warming is another issue on which scientists continually fail to reach key segments of the public. The real inconvenient truth here is that scientists aren't doing a good job of packaging what they know. No matter how solid the science gets, there remain "two Americas" on the subject: A strong majority of Republicans discount the science and the issue's urgency, while an overwhelming number of Democrats believe the opposite. Once again, the facts aren't driving opinions here. Instead, selective interpretations -- delivered via fragmented media and resonating with the public's partisan prejudices -- are winning out.

Thus, despite ever-increasing scientific consensus, prominent GOP leaders such as Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma still use conservative media outlets to describe climate science as too "uncertain" to justify action. If scientists and their defenders seek to answer such charges by explaining how much we know, they become enmeshed in the technical details (for instance, does climate change really contribute to more intense hurricanes?). And this only creates new opportunities for Inhofe and his flat-earth friends to sow doubt.

So once again, scientists and their allies would be better off shifting their emphasis, as well as the messenger. For example, church leaders can speak to the evangelical community about the necessity of environmental stewardship (a message that's already being delivered from some pulpits), even as business leaders can speak to fiscally oriented conservatives about the economic opportunities there for the plucking if Congress passes a system for trading carbon dioxide emission credits.

In this regard, one success story has come in the debate over human embryonic stem cells, a leading example of how scientists can effectively engage the public on controversial findings. In the weeks following Bush's 2001 compromise decision on stem cell research funding, more than 60 percent of the public supported the president's policy. But six years later, public opinion has shifted. In news coverage and campaigns, funding advocates have emphasized not the technical details of the research but the promise of new therapies and the resultant potential for economic growth. This strategy has helped spur legislation that would overturn the president's policy; the latest bill passed in the Senate last week (though not by enough votes to overturn an expected veto).

Here again, a delicate balance is required. Any recasting of an issue needs to remain true to the underlying science. As effective as the "hope for cures" message has been, some advocates have gone too far in their claims about potential advances.

Thankfully, scientists seem increasingly aware of the need to convey their knowledge better. There is even a bill in Congress that would allocate funding to the National Science Foundation to train scientists to become better communicators. That's a start, but scientists must recognize that on hot-button issues -- even scientific ones -- knowledge alone is rarely enough to win political arguments, change government policies or influence public opinion. Simply put, the media, policymakers and members of the public consume scientific information in a vastly different way than the scientists who generate it. If scientists don't learn how to cope in this often bewildering environment, they will be ceding their ability to contribute to the future of our nation.

Matthew C. Nisbet is a professor in the school of communication at American University.

Chris Mooney is Washington correspondent for Seed magazine and the author of "The Republican War

on Science."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company