Matters of Fact

katxueI want to understand how viruses evolve. Recently, I’ve been studying how flu virus changes over the course of a single patient infection and comparing those changes to flu’s evolution on a global scale.

Science has been in the news a lot lately—not just scientific discoveries, but the scientific enterprise itself. In response to President Trump’s moves to cut scientific funding and place “gag orders” on certain federal agencies, a March for Science planned for April 22 will bring together scientists and science enthusiasts. Thousands have already signaled their support of facts and evidence.


Facts and evidence—they’re usually what we talk about when we talk about science, whether in textbooks, museums, news articles, or documentaries. Countless studies lament the public’s lack of scientific literacy, as measured by their knowledge of facts. According to one report, nearly half of Americans think that antibiotics kill viruses, and a third don’t know that it takes the earth a year to go around the sun. With phrases like “alternative facts” and “post-fact era” entering public discourse, these matters of fact take on new urgency.


At Engage, we’re taking a slightly different approach to science communication. The course emphasizes stories, narratives that draw in audience members and engage them in the material. The idea is that effective communication relies on emotional connection as much as clarity of presentation. And it draws from research that suggests that facts alone rarely change people’s minds.


On the first day of class, we watched a video about public perceptions of scientists. On scales of technical and emotional capability, scientists rated as competent but cold, in a category with lawyers and businessmen. It’s easy for scientists to be perceived with suspicion or jealousy, and non-scientists aren’t always convinced that scientists are acting in the public interest.


I thought back to that lecture as I read a widely discussed (and controversial) op-ed in the New York Times about the March for Science. “Rather than marching on Washington and in other locations around the country, I suggest that my fellow scientists march into local civic groups, churches, schools, county fairs and, privately, into the offices of elected officials,” wrote the author, a climate scientist. “We need storytellers, not marchers.”


It’s easy to say, but I think we need both. The March for Science is organizing a series of teach-ins alongside the rally so that people can meet scientists and learn about their research. We’ve also talked in class about the importance of considering your audience: there’s space for protests and shows of strengths, as well as quieter moments aimed at changing hearts and minds.


I would argue that we need a third space as well. Beyond facts and stories, the day-to-day process of science is rife with ambiguity and uncertainty. Logic and reasoning have their places, yes, but intuition and interpretation do as well. The messiness of science is obvious to everyone who does science, but it tends to be swept under the rug when we talk to the public, replaced instead with cleaner narratives, straightforward facts.


Threats to science have put scientists on the defensive. Admitting to the messiness of the process feels like airing dirty laundry: it seems to provide ammunition for critique. In polarizing times like these, it’s tempting to skip over the halting, uncertain processes by which scientific facts are made. Not “made” as in fabricated, snatched out of thin air, but instead constructed through a painstaking process of experimentation, evidence-gathering, interpretation, analysis, re-analysis.


Science has nothing to hide. We should talk more about scientific methods: they are not the clean-cut, eight-step process that textbooks make them out to be, but they are reasonable and justifiable, and more so for being better understood. Facts and stories should be openings for delving into the complexities and uncertainties of science. “Most things in the world are unsettling and bewildering, and it is a mistake to try to explain them away,” physician and writer Lewis Thomas wrote in his essay collection Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. “They are there for marveling at and wondering at, and we should be doing more of this.”

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