Communication Fail! (RJS)

I 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]

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  • Rick

    “What would it take to build a sense of trust?”

    In the church world:

    1) Consider the audience and their concerns. If a scientist is talking about an old Earth, or evolution, first consider what the audience may be stressed over on the topic. Calm such concerns with your position on God, the historic faith, Scripture.

    2) Tell your own story. A scientist who tells his own journey, such as the one you linked to, allows people to understand and relate better. The other day I listened to an interview with the “Pope’s astronomer” on the show “Unbelievable?”. By telling his own story, he allowed people to see him as a highly intelligent person, but still a regular guy, as opposed to some cold scientist.

  • Rick

    oops, should have said: A scientist who tells his or her own journey…..

  • Excellent point of ethics in communication, RJS. I know I need to learn to be more patient with people in areas I communicate (not science, which I leave to experts like you). The “I have advanced knowledge far beyond you” stature gets a communicator nowhere. The “let’s reason together” approach takes patience, but if persuasion is our goal it is the one that works.

  • DMH

    Naturalis Historia looks fascinating, thanks for bringing it into view. Can’t wait to diving in.

    Trust and communication?
    1) I echo Rick’s number 1- calm fears.
    2) Use visuals- lots of good visuals. Some of us grasp things better with one good visual than with 10,000 words
    3) Information needs to start being aimed at our young children- early sunday school. The YEC crowd are excellent at this and with great material for kids. Unless we start doing this we will find ourselves fighting this same battle with each new generation.

  • Phil Miller

    I think the idea of treating people with respect is key. I think it’s hard for scientists regarding the issues of evolution particularly because they are constantly questioned by people who really don’t have the training. My wife, for instance, has a PhD in microbiology and when people who haven’t had any training in biology beyond high school treat her like she’s stupid or ignorant, I can understand why she would have a hard time treating those people with respect. In that sense, respect is a two way street. It’s not that lack of training in and of itself is some sort of automatic deal-breaker. I just think there’s a lot of anti-intellectualism at play in many areas of the church still.

    I think in order for scientists to start respecting the Church, the Church needs to start respecting scientists. That means that we will need to give up questioning the motives of those who don’t agree with us. I do agree with the idea that scientists need to personalize their stories, but, again, it’s going to be hard to do that if they feel they’re talking to an audience that is holding them to some litmus test.

  • Adam

    I’m in the middle of this problem right now and it isn’t even a science issue; it’s dealing with the rules and regulations of the FCC. The people responsible for making the important decisions are refusing to invest the time and effort to read and understand the FCC rules and are therefore making very bad decisions for our projects. When I attempt to warn them about the approaching disaster I’m just ignored and chastised for “being negative”. And then disaster strikes and they scramble for a quick fix that makes the problem worse.

    No method of communication seems to work here. It takes failure for people to recognize that change needs to happen. This is the same as saying “no one changes until they hit rock bottom”. People are free to make their own choices and very frequently they will make the wrong choice. At that point, it’s a matter of luck if the person will make the link between their choices and the circumstances of their life.

    And now the complexity of the problem is compounded even more because you have to start asking if the freedom for people to choose is more valuable than the ability for people to live. It’s highly frustrating to be making these decisions with everyone else completely ignorant of the situation and just blaming you for arrogance.

  • Josh Steele

    AiG and ICR treat you with respect if you agree with what they’re saying. If you disagree, you’ve abandoned the Christian faith and are a “compromiser.”

  • Phil Miller

    I should also add that I think in some ways talking about scientific issues is actually somewhat secondary to what people need to hear in churches. I think the bigger issue is with theology. I think people need to hear from church leaders that it’s actually OK to accept evolution or global warming as true without it meaning they are compromising their faith. Because most of the time that is what it comes down to.

  • jeffcook

    On communication, Christians need to stop sounding like conspiracy theorists on clearly non-essential matters.

  • Rick

    But many Christians first need to be taught that some things are non-essentials.

  • jeffcook

    K. Then its a matter of internal communication, ya? Not what the post is asking about, ya?

  • AHH

    In contrast creationist organizations like AiG and ICR treat fellow Christians with respect as thinking adults.
    Not if the fellow Christians (especially those who are scientists) don’t agree with them. Even for the others, I’m not sure carrying people along into “us versus them” conspiracy thinking is really treating people as “thinking adults”.
    I think it is a slightly different thing, that these organizations are good at establishing a “they’re on our side” sense of trust with the average Christian. Some of that is not being contemptuous to the people they are talking to (I agree many scientists fail there), but I’d say more of it is establishing the concept that they are on the same team, the good guys.

    So I’d point to that as important for communication about science in the church, and I’ve learned it in years of talking about these things. It helps to start by making clear that we are on the same team, all committed to Jesus, all affirming “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth”, all affirming the authority and inspiration of Scripture. Then one can go to “OK, now let’s discuss ways to think about some nonessentials”.
    And I agree with the comments about personal stories, particularly from people already trusted in the community. I get more of a hearing now that I’ve served a term as an Elder and people know me compared to when I was an anonymous scientist who seemed like an alien presence. Last Sunday in an Adult Ed class, we had an atmospheric scientist talk about his journey of faith and how his work ties into that, including some mention of climate change. Our church has many who follow the denialists on that issue. But when the message is coming not from Al Gore but from Sam, the guy who has been a part of this church for 40 years, served as an Elder, maybe taught Sunday School to their kids, it gets a much more respectful hearing.

  • Phil Miller

    Good point about AiG. I saw Ken Ham speak at a church a number of years ago. The church was in a college town. The school is a large state school and it consistently ranked high as far as the research money it brings in. I would not say that Ken Ham treated the professors and graduate students in the sciences there as thinking adults. He pretty much painted them all as being deceived at best or as perpetrating atheistic ideology at worst. It doesn’t leave much room for a middle ground.

  • Rick

    Yes, but I was not disagreeing with you, just wanted the emphasize the importance of teaching essentials/non-essentials.

  • RJS4DQ

    Do you think that AiG and the like do a better job of treating the average layperson with respect?

    Both biblical scholars and scientists who disagree are not always treated well. But when the issue is communication, isn’t it the impression of the target audience that matters the most?

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    I don’t know. I’ve tried the patient approach many times, and in about 80% of the cases, only scorn and derision followed (I’m a geologist).

    But one needs to understand how one appears in the other party’s eyes:

    For the Scientist, the YEC’ist appears like a witch doctor would appear to a MD. Wild ideas, unsupported assertions, rejection of logic and evidence.

    For the YEC’ist believer, the non-YEC’ist looks like an emissary from Satan himself, wanting to deceive and lead astray (just have a look at Ham’s teaching material).

    While not all descend into those extremes, they are very common.

  • Phil Miller

    I think the problem with that question is that a scientist reads that like, “do you think snake oil salesmen do a better job of treating their average customer with respect?” 🙂

    In a sense, I guess you could say the audience feels respected because they’re being told stuff they want to hear. They’re being told that their folk wisdom is right and all those pointy-headed liberal scientists have it wrong. To me, I don’t see what AiG does fundamentally any different than a televangelist asking old ladies to send in a portion of their social security check every month. I don’t see it as a form of respect.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Exactly! AIG does a good job of advertising to the uninformed. Like the friendly investment adviser that appears to care about you, and wants you to have that yacht in the Caribbean.

    For most scientists, the YEC-debate is a minor sideshow, while for AIG, DI, ICR etc. it is their raison d’etre.

  • Treating people with respect is necessary. Trouble is, people don’t know what respect looks like. They think it means to never doubt or question their authority, no matter how little data it’s based on. So when I respectfully say, “I don’t know about that,” it’s immediately interpreted as disrespect or even contempt.

    Treating people with love works better. They may know you doubt them, or disagree with them, but they’ll also know you won’t cast aside your relationship with them over it. So you can keep talking.

  • RJS4DQ

    I think we are missing the point. What would a Christian leader, pastor, somewhat sympathetic to YEC think of much of the conversation (and “up votes”) here?

    No one with a counter view has commented. If they did would they be treated with respect? Questions engaged? Explanations given?

    How about on the issue of global warming? I expect that some who here doubt, even scorn, YEC are skeptical about global warming. Would a scorn of “deniers” as ignorant or worse help to make the case and convince you?

  • tumnus123

    I resonate with a point @Rick made — as scientists, we need to learn how to tell a story. Our own, someone else’s, a team’s, a robot’s… I consider NASA’s “7 Minutes of Terror” to have been a pretty good story. Its true that a story will leave out certain details, and may exaggerate for emphasis — these do not make for good science, but they will make for better public communication than a technically accurate, complete, dry account. There’s a reason the Hebrew people were successful in passing ancient stories down through the generations — its because they were *good* stories.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    And yet, I have tried it too. And I received the proverbial kick in the nether regions in return – almost every single time. Count me skeptical about meaningful communication.

  • Phil Miller

    They would probably think we are a bunch of poor misguided souls who have been deceived.

    I do understand what you’re saying, RJS, we should foster “safe” environments where people can hold different positions without fear of being laughed at or shouted down. But I guess from my perspective the power relationship in a lot of churches is still that those who hold views that are more within the mainstream of science are the ones who are being ostracized and laughed at. I’ve heard plenty of pastors tell jokes about people who believe in evolution during the middle of sermons.

    That’s why I said in an earlier comment that to me the problem has more to do with theology than with science. I think if people can move to a place where the can start viewing some of things as having relatively little importance to the Christian faith overall, than it will be much more respectful environment all around.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Agreed. The theme seems to be “well, if scientists wouldn’t be so snooty and condescending, they’d make inroads.” But this is ignoring the fact that there is a strong cultural component in the U.S. (and let’s be honest it manifests itself most strongly in conservative regions where religion and politics both are well to the right of the spectrum) that prides itself on having a mistrust and skepticism of ‘intellectuals’ and science outright. It really came to a forefront in the Modernist-Fundamentalist debates of 100 years ago and has never really gone away, especially in the Southeast (where I live) and Midwest.

    I and many others agree this has had serious ramifications for our country, and it has not been positive. When you respectfully and clearly explain to someone a position and its evidence, and the dismissal is just “well, those studies have a liberal bias” or “they’re pushing an agenda” . . what are you supposed to do? Just look at Megyn Kelly’s exchange with windbag Erik Erickson on Fox News about women in the workforce.

    And the common denominator from a demographic perspective is conservative Christianity/fundamentalism. To scientists and the rest of the Western world, to even implore that absolute nonsense like YEC be given “a seat at the table” is like asking for those who believe in unicorns and bigfoot be given seats . . .at some point we have to agree to accept where the data takes us and move on. Ditto with climate change/global warming. The conservatives in the rest of the developed world don’t deny man’s contribution to global warming, it’s a uniquely American phenomenon and its roots go to the churches.

  • AHH

    I still don’t think “respect” is quite the right word for that impression of the target audience; it is more a matter of conveying trust and affinity, the “I’m on your team” feeling.
    And one has to distinguish at least a couple of categories of communication here. There is communication by secular scientists to the public (including Christians), where there are certainly problems with people being dismissive or contemptuous (there’s also the point that showing sometimes merited contempt for mistaken ideas is easy to mistake as contempt for people). And then there is communication within the church, where there is certainly room for improvement but I think it is not so bad in general. Biologos and RJS, to name two examples, show at least as much “respect” for the average layperson as the various “creationist” organizations.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Unfortunately, it is no longer so uniquely American. I’m an ex-South African, now Canadian, living in Saskatchewan. While the extent is less in Canada, the same pattern reveals itself. Conservatives (in both political and theologically senses) here are invariably creationist, unless they are Catholic / Orthodox. In South Africa it is even worse – Creationist beliefs are stronger there than in the US. Of course, that implies that both the Conservative right as well as the Liberationist (is that a word?) left are dominated by Creationism.

    See this survey:

  • Rick

    It may not work on everyone, but it is more effective than not doing it.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    I know. But sometimes a man can only take so much…. 🙂

  • RJS4DQ


    I think the blog I highlight at the end of the post does a good job as well. He spends a good bit of time explaining problems with YEC arguments, and does it with respect for his audience.

  • Andrew Dowling

    I stand corrected, I shouldn’t have made such a blanket statement. I suppose I was thinking more of Europe and emerging countries like Brazil and China. I do know South Africa has its own unique, ugly history of fundamentalist neo-Reformed Christianity, which supported racial superiority and other nasty ideas..

    Canada has its own contingent but they lack the numbers or political influence of their U.S. counterparts.

  • tumnus123

    Are we trying to convince hardened skeptics, or offer up our findings in a way that the general public will find compelling? I think we do both science and religion a disservice when we put more pressure on the areas of greatest friction; we could be more productive by seeking to capture the imaginations of the greater population.

  • wolfeevolution

    I second your comments, AHH, where you speak about the influence of your trusted role as an elder.

    I do think respectful and fact-filled communication is part of the solution, like what we see on this Naturalis Historia blog. For instance, I think many people honestly believe there are no transitional forms because nobody has ever sat down with them and respectfully talked through the absolutely overwhelming evidence for their existence, in terms they can understand.

    In my opinion, though, even respectful, fact-filled communication will just be held at arm’s length so long as deeper-seated barriers of trust, fear, and social identity remain intact. People need to hear those whose doctrine and godly lives they already trust—pastors, worship leaders, elders, small-group leaders, mentors, and missionaries—sharing their own journey toward evolutionary creationism. This probably works best when it comes as a surprise, i.e., when there’s a solid relationship of trust in place before the issue ever surfaces. This disarming “Trojan Horse” approach is the only way I see things changing. When people see it’s possible to be a radically committed Christian (however they define that) and an evolutionary creationist, perhaps they’ll shift their boundary markers a few inches.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    On the communication front, a little broader than Christians’ communication or communication of realities about global warming, I recommend a book that a friend directed me to. “The Art of Explanation” is by Lee Lefever, creator of the 3 minute Common Craft (or “White Board”) videos, which UPS adds have reduced to 30 seconds.

    Lefever agrees on the respect issue, although he phrases it in terms of expressing and establishing empathy. He also emphasizes the importance of communicating immediately why listeners should care,establishing the context of the argument, and the costs of explaining at an expert level (loosing the 90% of non-experts)

    At times the book feels like yet-another-guide-on advertising-and-sales, but I think he really gets at another level of the power of explanation. I am working at re-crafting many explanations that I make on issues relevant and not-so-relevant to Christianity.

  • Andrew Dowling

    A great examination of calm, clear communication by a scientist:

  • Rob F.

    I agree with the comment that the problem isn’t so much communicating science, as it is communicating theology. As long as a Christian believes that Scripture is inerrant in every conceivable sense the most nuanced and charitable presentation of scientific evidence isn’t going to persuade them. And it shouldn’t. If one believes the Bible is 100% factually/historically accurate then the only intellectually consistent stance(s) towards science that contradicts the “plain reading of Scripture” is antagonism, dismissal and/or hostility.

  • I’m a lay person and though I don’t understand all the nuances, I’m perfectly capable of following the general thrust of most discussions and on many scientific topics, there are a lot of resources that are accessible to “lay” individuals. Climate change is certainly one of those areas.

    Admittedly, I have a lot of scientists in my family, even if I’m not one. (And my younger son appears headed into their ranks in physics.) I haven’t seen anything to indicate that right-wing evolution, climate change (or whatever) deniers are amenable to “conversation and education.” So I think the basic premise is flawed.

    That’s my perspective anyway.