Commentaries and articles published recently on the Nature website suggest political events have alarmed members of the scientific community (1-4). Dismay over the threat of fake news and an apparent decline in public respect for evidence-based decision making is prompting appeals for action. May those who answer the calls to activism and public outreach achieve their goals. A few points to think about –
You cannot convince everyone.
I commend colleagues considering taking action to change things for the better. However, having some experience as an activist for environmental causes, I warn them that facts, even mounds of them, may not always convince an audience your ideas are best. In fact, some may have a direct vested interest in not accepting any information contrary to their positions.
Adapt to the situation.
Lectures may not be effective or appreciated. The average citizen is likely to be far more familiar with the nearly 200 year old novel Frankenstein than current scientific research. Attach the prefix ‘Franken-’ to anything and many people will understand instantly it is bad before they know what it is or does. You probably view “Science” as an obvious positive, others have a different stance and solid arguments to back their opinions.
Listen carefully to your opponents and consider what they say.
I suggest before entering in public debates on social media or other venues, you start by listening carefully to the concerns and objections being raised by people on the other side of the issues. Once you appreciate the matters at hand and enter the discussion, please remember to acknowledge and address their concerns. Those actions might help avoid falling into the trap of debates where everyone talks past one another.
Be open and honest.
If you have a vested interest in the outcome, make sure to be clear about them upfront and immediately. The perception of you as an honest broker can change quickly if and when an opponent points out conflicts of interest. Finally, avoid the temptation to engage in your own fictions of over-promising what your preferred approach will deliver.
We all know academia is different from the public realm. In theory. Be prepared for some shock. And keep trying.
(1) P. Williamson. 2016. Take the Time and Effort to Correct Misinformation. Nature, 8 December 2016. http://go.nature.com/2g5H1ju
(2) E. Marris. Is Donald Trump Pushing More Scientists Towards Political Activism? Nature, 13 December 2016. http://go.nature.com/2hjqU6h
(3) M. Roodijn. 2016. Simply Studying Populism Is No Longer Enough. Nature, 15 December 2016. http://go.nature.com/2hm3WvA
(4) N. Baron. 2016. So You Want to Change the world? Nature 21 December 2016. http://www.nature.com/news/so-you-want-to-change-the-world-1.21188