How researchers get heard

Was Science on Tuesday’s Ballot?

No. To assert otherwise is just myopic and/or solipsistic. Get over yourselves, scientists and lovers of science.

Two reactions from leading scientists crystallize this self-involvement:

  1. Holden Thorp, the editor-in-chief of Science magazine, told STAT News: “Science was on the ballot and this means that a significant portion of America doesn’t want science. … Science is now something for a subset of America.”
  2. Naomi Oreskes, science historian at Harvard and co-author of Merchants of Doubt, told Nature magazine that “Evidently a lot of Floridians are in denial about climate change. … How do we fix that? I don’t know, but obviously what we’ve been doing has not worked.”

Yes, it’s all about you. Reality check: Florida also passed a $15 minimum wage, while very blue California voted to allow gig economy behemoths like Uber and Lyft to continue not providing their employees with benefits that are basic human rights — a vote whose impacts will ripple nationwide across other industries such as delivery and logistics.

In fact, science was not “front and center due to the pandemic,” as journalist Jeff Tollefson wrote in that Nature piececovering Oreskes’ and other scientists’ reactions to the U.S. presidential, Senate and House election results. Not for a majority of voters, for whom the economy and racial inequality mattered more.

Yes, scientists’ livelihoods and scientific integrity have been threatened by the policies of the current U.S. administration. Yes, public health messaging and information has been shambolic. But much of the funding and structural damage done to science by the Trump administration will be rectified under a Biden administration, which as of this writing is looking increasingly likely. About 69% of U.S. respondents to a Pew survey earlier this year said, “It is very important to be a world leader in scientific achievements.” According to the Yale Program on Climate Communication’s 2020 map of U.S. climate opinion, 72% of Floridians think global warming is happening — exactly the average for the entire country — and 58% thought “a presidential candidate’s views on global warming are important to my vote,” which bests the national average by 2 percentage points.

Science is both critical to our lives and far from uppermost in the minds of almost all of us. If you think the latter is a bad thing, your first response should not be to shout “improve science literacy!” — because, as research has shown, Republicans and Democrats (and conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats) show about equal levels of science literacy already:

So when Trump wins 93% of the 376 counties now experiencing the worst surges in new coronavirus cases, that’s not about scientific literacy. That’s about trust, and other priorities.

Your first response, then, should be to engage with the public — not telling people on Twitter they’re wrong, but genuine engagement, as Glen Nowak of the University of Georgia’s Center for Health and Risk Communication defined it for STAT:

The approach often used is, ‘We just need to tell people who have those beliefs that they’re wrong.’ Maybe not that directly, but in other ways. Maybe what we need to do is invest in listening to their concerns, and understanding their perspectives, before we start giving them our messages.

Essential engagement steps include

  • Looking for places to engage (social media, yes, but also in less heated in-person community forums);
  • Articulating common aspirations (we all want to stop the spread of this disease/stop the impacts of a changing climate);
  • Soliciting ideas and solutions from your interlocutor, which makes people feel empowered but which many scientists feel cedes epistemological ground; and
  • Identifying quickly the people who are open to reaching common ground and avoiding trolls or ideologues.
  • Takeaway: Science didn’t lose Tuesday. It just found out — yet again — that most people aren’t thinking about it.

We might realize that’s an opportunity, if we can get over ourselves.