Communication Fail!

Whitechuck_glacierI had a conversation over lunch with some colleagues recently when the issue of global warming came up. This was shortly after several articles appeared looking at phenomena like glacial melting: In Sign of Warming, 1,600 Years of Ice in Andes Melted in 25 Years and Mount Everest’s glaciers shrinking at increasing rate, say researchers (Press Release) and these pictures at Olympic National Park are rather impressive. The pictures to the right are of Whitechuck Glacier in Washington from wikipedia.

The conversation took a rather common turn, with a scientist expressing dismay, accompanied by a touch of disgust, at the recalcitrance of so many people on the issue of global warming. After all, the reasoning goes, any intelligent person should either learn the science or accept the consensus opinion of those who do know the science and who understand the scientific method of investigation. Truth on these questions is not determined by popular vote or a show of hands. It isn’t simply a matter of belief. It seems rather clear at this point that mankind can influence the climate, and that global warming is real. The shrinking and thinning of glaciers and ice cover is a real phenomena, for example, easily observed within the memory of many and the photographic record. The scientific analysis shows that it is significant on the scale of thousands of years, not just hundreds. Of course it is also true that the models for predicting the future are not yet sufficiently accurate (it is a very complex problem) and that the most alarmist scenarios should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism as noted in this BBC story describing an article published recently in Nature Geoscience.

But I don’t want to get sidetracked into the question of global warming today, the role of humans in the process, or the ability of the models to predict the future. Rather I would like to consider the question of effective communication. How can one communicate a technically complex topic to a lay audience in a useful manner?

If there is one thing that has become obvious over the last five plus years of thinking and writing about the issues of science and Christian faith it is that we have a massive communication fail. Far too often scientists, Christian and non-Christian alike, pronounce with a tone of arrogance and authority rather educate with a tone of humility and respect. This is true on the question of global warming, the age of the earth, and the evidence for evolution. The denial of evolution and skepticism on climate change are treated with disdain and often disgust rather than signaling a need for conversation and education.

This is getting us nowhere fast.

What does it take to communicate science for a lay audience?

What kind of communication do you find effective?

A Christian Earth Scientist with a blog entitled Questioning Answers in Genesis suggests in his introductory post that a failure to treat others with the respect they deserve underlies much of the current distrust with which scientists are held in parts of the church. In contrast creationist organizations like AiG and ICR treat fellow Christians with respect as thinking adults. This gets them a hearing.

In a nutshell, academia treats the general public as ignorant laity that can’t be trusted with the evidence outside of a classroom (tuition paid up); AiG researchers treat the general public as their peers, not only sharing the evidence for free but giving it a purpose. As a theological son of the Reformation, I don’t feel it necessary to explain which approach I perceive as superior.

I recommend reading his whole post to get the full context of this comment. He describes his journey from Young Earth Creation in his teens and early college through to Ph.D. work in geology studying sedimentary/isotope geochemistry and paleoclimatology (a truly fascinating topic). It was the application of critical thinking to all the data, both from creationists groups like ICR and AiG and in the mainstream literature that convinced him that there is no real ground or basis for a young earth position in the scientific data. The arguments put forward by organizations like AiG need, he feels, to be countered, but with a steady stream of data and explanation treating the lay person with respect rather than with pronouncements from authority.

Do you think he is right? What would it take to build a sense of trust?

Finally I would like to end with link to an excellent blog I happened on recently that appears to carry this out very well: Naturalis Historia. I haven’t read everything on the site, but I have read through a number of the posts. This blog is written by a Christian biology professor currently teaching at a secular university. In an occasional series of well written posts (3 to 10 a month or so), now extending back over several years, he wanders through a wide range of issues in the relationship between science and the Christian faith. Many of his posts look at specific scientific findings and the evidence they provide for an old earth and for the overarching scenario of evolutionary biology. Such fascinating topics as Horsing Around With Genetic Sorting, Lake Sugitsu and the 60000 Year Varve Chronology, and The Frequently Overlooked Geological Context of Hominid Fossils. This is a site designed to teach, treating the reader with respect while providing useful information in readable chunks.

Looking at the posts on Naturalis Historia, does this blog convey a sense of trust? Why or why not?

What kind of discussion would you find convincing?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at]

If you would like to comment please see Communications Fail! at Jesus Creed.

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