The data was collected, the numbers crunched and the results are in: science needs a rebrand.
A recent Pew Research Centre poll found that while the vast majority of people—79 per cent—believe in the value of science, huge minorities have serious doubts about the scientific consensus on everything from vaccines to nuclear power.
The gap between scientific consensus and public understanding is tricky. For one thing, it’s among the reasons we can’t muster a sustained global effort to combat climate change. And it turns out, the gap can’t be closed with more facts.
Culture and past experience shape our worldviews more than objective evidence. The phenomenon is called “cultural cognition,” and it’s why a full third of people doubt humans have evolved over time despite the 98 per cent of scientists who agree on evolution.
Simply put: peer pressure wins out over academics. But a shift in science communication can change that, making it as relatable as our peers.
Since the person delivering information is as important as the facts, the argument for diversity in STEM is even stronger. It’s incredibly important to break the stereotype of the old white-haired man speaking in jargon. In the halls of academia, on our television screens and in town hall events, we need scientists to look, act and communicate more like the regular public.
For science to inform society it needs to be embedded in culture. When famous hip hop artist GZA visits public schools around New York challenging students to rap about science, he’s doing more to draw people in than anyone fiddling with a Bunsen burner.
And the science backs this up.
A new study from the researchers at Yale University’s Cultural Cognition Project found that scientific curiosity is a powerful antidote to partisanship. While scientific literacy allows people to select evidence that supports pre-existing beliefs, people who are scientifically curious—rather than scientifically trained—are willing to engage with ideas opposing their own.
That’s the first step to bridging the gap between scientists and society.
“Science is being used to be right, instead of curious,” says Mary Anne Moser, co-founder and CEO of science communications firm Beakerhead. “Science needs to be less judgemental, more inclusive and open to being wrong, all the things we’re working on as a society as well.”
This Earth Day, thousands of scientists will descend on Washington DC to protest budget cuts to their departments. The science seems to suggest that when people in lab coats align with one political side, they only drive people further away.
Instead, scientists need to stoke our wonder.
None of this is a surprise to Andrew Swinand, North America CEO for advertising giant Leo Burnett, who says scientists can learn from the successes of social movements and advertisers.
“The magic happens when the IQ intersects with the EQ,” he says. “When facts and data reach people on a human level.”
With a bit of curiosity, art and emotion, we can rebrand science and bring it into more people’s lives.