Combatting Anti-Science in Our Society

As session leader Eddie Goldstein of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science said, “This is the Association of Science-Technology Centers. We are the people who can push and nudge society in a certain direction.” That was the foundation of Monday’s Combatting Anti-Science in Our Society session. Alan Friedman of Friedman Consults and J Newlin of the Science Museum of Minnesota also presented to a vocal and passionate audience. The session consisted of short presentations from the panelists, followed by 2-3 sentence reactions from the attendees, an open discussion, and a discussion of possible next steps.

Eddie Goldstein spoke about two “aha” moments during his career. The first was when he realized that if a person doesn’t buy into the scientific process as a whole, no amount of scientific evidence will change his or her mind on an issue. The second, when he realized that there is a difference between scientific thinking and legal or political thinking. He mentioned that as science centers, it is our job to move society, bit by bit, toward scientific thinking.

J Newlin discussed the Six Americas study from Yale University that separated Americans into 6 groups regarding climate change, which are, from most to least concerned about climate change, alarmed (18%), concerned (33%), cautious (19%), disengaged (12%), doubtful (11%), and dismissive (7%). The Science Museum of Minnesota repeated the study with their visitors and found very similar results, demonstrating that education and wealth do not correlate to specific opinions about climate change, as their demographic tends to be more educated and wealthier than the general public, according to Newlin. He suggested that science centers need to start with community-based examples and action to persuade the public instead of starting with the scientific evidence.

Alan Friedman said he used to think that if you just give people the facts, they’ll use them to think more rationally and appreciate science, but found that that approach, in fact, does not work. So, he wants to change how science centers attempt to persuade science-deniers by studying how people think. He suggested using psychology and listening to how people talk, both scientists and the general public, to determine how to avoid words and phrases that will cause defenses to be raised and all arguments dismissed.

The group discussion was very lively and ended with suggestions for possible action for science centers. Suggestions included encouraging more open dialogues, being a part of the conversation and active participants on a broader scale, getting scientists on the museum’s floor to interact with visitors, and making the distinction between knowing about something and caring about something. (For example, a person can understand the rules of football, but not care what team wins or loses.) The general consensus was, as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts,” and science centers can, by trying different techniques, slowly move society away from anti-science.