Use Your Words

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By Shaila Kotadia (@shpostrapheaila)

Imagine stepping onto the turf at CenturyLink Field, home of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, engulfed by the loudest crowd in the history of sports, and trying to get them to cheer for their arch-rival, the San Francisco 49ers. That was essentially the situation in which science personality Bill Nye found himself earlier this week, when he ventured into the Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY for a debate on evolution with Museum president Ken Ham. Beyond the ramifications for evolutionary biology, the debate presented a fascinating example of an effort to communicate science to a non-expert audience.

Many within the scientific community criticized Nye for even participating in the first place, pointing out that he is not an expert on evolution, and that by agreeing to debate Ham he was justifying the position of creationists. Nye, however, relished the debate as an opportunity to communicate about science, pointing out that he hoped to “draw attention to the importance of science education here in the United States.” His performance serves as an insightful guide for how those interested in science communication can perform under the most difficult of circumstances.

Given that the event featured back-and-forth statements without interjections, it was difficult for each participant to react to opposing viewpoints. However, Nye gave a master class in how to keep cool in the face of hostility: rather than reacting negatively, he listened to what the other side had to say and responded in a level-headed manner with confidence and facts that reinforced his position. Nye also made good use of his delivery, throwing in colloquialisms and jokes, and using intonations that engaged the audience. This kept the tone of the debate relaxed and friendly, removing the aggression that sometimes overshadows intellectual components.

Furthermore, Nye was able to use examples from his own life to make his presentation more relatable. Both scientists and non-scientists have loved ones who have been diagnosed with cancer or heart disease or diabetes; making a personal connection is an effective approach to softening the nature of the audience, helping to persuade them to be more objective and eliminating unrecognized biases.

In the end, Nye both won and lost the debate. While his points were made with fervor, he tried to fit a lot of science into minimal time, likely making it difficult for the average viewer to really digest all of the facts. When explaining complex scientific concepts, it is best to keep it simple and to the point, and then fill in details as questions arise. Nye also faced a difficult opponent who refuted his arguments with a “if you can’t see it, then you can’t believe it” attitude and constantly referred back to the Bible when asked questions about unsolved scientific problems. Given such stubbornness, scientists need to recognize when there is difficulty reasoning with the other side, and do their best to lay out their story clearly and concisely.

But from an outreach perspective, Bill Nye was a clear winner. Whether or not creationists were converted to evolutionists or vice-versa is immaterial. Scientists are often told that they must communicate their science to the public. Refusing to engage with different audiences leads to confusion, mis-information and distrust, all of which make our jobs as scientists even more difficult. Take the opportunity to learn from Bill Nye about how you can use your words to help others understand the beauty of science.  If more scientists stood up to promote and defend science, then this debate might not have even been necessary in the first place.

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