Science, Art, Litt, Science based Art & Science Communication

Why it is difficult for scientists to debate controversial issues with people outside of science

Science Communication series - Part 8

"Debates don’t show who is right. They only show who is best at debating. Only evidence can show who is right, not debates. But what if the other person debating  doesn't accept your genuine evidence? What if people watching don't know what scientific evidence is? What if they think the evidence shown is just an opinion of the debater?”"

Recently I read two articles that say (a) Scientists have to stop answering the questions they are asked (ref 1). (b) scientists should stop debating creationists (ref 2). Both views came from the world of science.

These views are bad for science communication. But according to these articles, there are some valid points too to consider.

The first article says 'scientists have let themselves be framed in their eagerness to answer every question they are asked'. That, according to the writer of this article, is a big mistake. He explains why he thinks how scientists are being framed in detail.

The second article deals with more valid points. It says: Many scientists are uneasy about the debate regarding Evolution Vs. Creation theory. The reasons the writer of this article gives for this argument are six:

1. Creationists specialize in the what’s called the Gish gallop — a rapid-fire listing of supposed weaknesses of evolution that, in a limited-time format of a debate, cannot all be properly answered.This leaves the audience with the incorrect impression that evolution is shaky science.

2. The debate “Is Creation a Viable Model of Origins?” is itself problematic. Because evolution is all around us, all the time. Evolution is why we need to get a new flu shot every year. By putting a scientist and a non-scientist on the same stage together, there is a real danger of legitimizing creationism and giving the appearance that both sides are equally valid. Anyone is free to hold whatever beliefs or opinions they like, no matter how unscientific or false. But there is no obligation to portray both sides as having equally strong or valid scientific arguments, when by any measure they do not.

3. Another problem is that because Scientists and creationists are operating on different sets of assumptions, there will be no meeting of the minds. For a true, fruitful debate, the participants should speak each other’s language and accept definitions that provide common ground for a discussion. True discussion is difficult here because they don’t even accept the definitions of the words the other person uses.

Scientists and creationists are unlikely to find common ground.
For creationists the Bible is their ultimate authority. They are starting with the answer — that the Christian God created the universe as described in the Book of Genesis — and trying to make the facts fit that interpretation or conclusion.

The problem is that that’s not how science works. The purpose of science is to gather facts in a systematic way and follow the evidence to its logical conclusion, not prove a certain premise.

4. Religions are based, by definition, upon faith instead of evidence, and that’s why debates about religion are often fruitless. A few good points — or, depending on the tone, zingers — may be made, but it’s unlikely to change many minds. Those who walk in convinced that evolution is true (or a hoax) will likely leave the same way.

5. Appeals to emotion and faith often win the day regardless of what the scientific evidence says. That is one reason why, for example, anti-vaccine propaganda is persuasive to many people. One of the most compelling “arguments” are vivid, personal stories highlighted by anti-vaccination activists like Jenny McCarthy. It’s a classic case of science versus anecdote.

Statistics and authoritative, impersonal medical information will never be as compelling as an emotional, tearful story told by a mother holding the daughter whose autism she blames on the vaccine. All the facts, data and research fades away under the glare of human emotion and faith. The people who do best in these debates are those who establish rapport with the audience, and who come across as trustworthy and believable. Affect is all; content is secondary. Which is another reason why formal debate is not the way to educate people about evolution or science in general.

6. Changing minds is unlikely in such a scenario.

"Science adjusts its views based on what’s observed. Faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved." - Tim Minchin

This is my experience too while dealing with people of religion and art! I have learned the lesson: never underestimate confirmation bias.

I had  very detailed discussions with both scientists  and science communicators around the world regarding this problem. To my surprise, majority of them said never debate/discuss/collaborate with people of religion and art! Because, they said, these people are highly irrational and there is no use in talking to such people who have closed minds!

Sometimes the real problem is not the communication, it is the behaviour of recipients and vested interests. In some cases the fact that messages don't get through has nothing to do with the complexity of the information or the incompetence or even personalities of the messengers.

It has everything to do with what is termed "wilful blindness". This is the deliberate refusal to accept reasonable information – it is also referred to as "denial" (ref3).

It is very difficult to open completely closed minds. For a fruitful collaboration/ debate/ discussion, you need a shared praxis or a shared ground - even a partial one will do. If there isn't one at least you have to have open minds. But the moment a person thinks he has all the answers, his mind will be closed and it is difficult to deal with closed minds. While for religious people "GOD" is the answer for everything, for artists "I, me, and myself " are the answers for everything! ( I know people of religion and artists would now say for scientists  "science" is the answer for everything! But science is an ever-evolving subject and is very open to criticism, other criteria, and correction and therefore is not a closed arena).

Scientists really don't know how to appeal to the emotional part of people's minds like artists, actors and people of religion do. This is because scientists would be told and trained to keep the emotions at bay as soon as they enter their work places because they interfere with neutral reasoning which is essential for scientific progress. They try to speak facts with a distance that is perceived as cold and unemotional. It is difficult for the scientifically trained persons to come out of this mold ( Two art journal editors asked me to say things passionately and become more 'personal oriented' while conducting  interviews with me. It was an uphill task for me. Finally when I could not do it to their satisfaction, they changed my words. When I asked them why they did this they told me they wanted to bring life to the interview! But what they published were not my words and they didn't represent me as an individual and I was not at all happy with the outcome. That is how we are! The million dollar question is can we change- losing our identity as people of science- and become more like people from other fields at least when we are with them so that they can relate to us ?)

It is extremely difficult for us - when once we find a fact and reality - to go to the realm of pseudo-world and ideas that don't fit into reality. The beauty of truth will never allow you to go back to the ugly falsehood. A mind that is broadened by knowledge can never go back to its original and narrow size again!

Moreover, what I have observed is the non-scientific people who are firm believers and participating in the debates are often really so aggressive, trying to attack you with all their might because they are worried they would be outdone by facts and truth that they don't give you chance to even think , breathe and talk. You will be forced to withdraw and keep quiet! (According to some psychologists this type of aggression is related to dog's way of doing things. Dogs, it seems, attack first by barking aggressively so that the person they are barking at get mind-blocked with fear by the aggression, fail to think, and don't attack them in return so the dogs can be safe! Nice strategy). Now how to tackle this problem is the question I want the science communicators to address. Sometimes you will be framed into a false situation like the first article mentioned above says! Scientists value their time more than anybody else. So they don't want to waste their time on these aggressive and hostile environments. Scientists would be forced to come down to this level if they want to survive in a debate and if any scientist does this out of confidence he is treated as an arrogant person!

Scientists also think that truth and facts need not be supported and they can stand on their own strength. Therefore, most of them don't want to involve in 'fact Vs. belief' discussions. According to them, ''Earth goes around the Sun". Period. What difference will it make whether anybody believes it or not? Why should they even bother about it? The problem can be solved only on intellectual grounds, diplomatic solutions have very little room in case of scientific facts because you cannot reduce them to half or quarter to give some ground to belief systems.

Where ignorance is our master, there is no possibility of real peace - Dalai Lama

According to a non-scientist: Science, for the non scientist requires as much faith as religion. Not true according to scientists. Because they can show evidence. One need not trust what the scientists are saying until one sees the proof. Belief has no place in science. One need not have blind faith in science.

However, believers don't even accept the fact that all that was written centuries ago suited the situations then but they need not be correct and supported by the present situations (ref 4,5,6). Now they are considered as scripts written on water, highly shaky and dissolving. If you say this, to my surprise, they say this is true of science and not of religion. Usually scientists don't deny it if something is based on facts. They have reservations only with the unsupported folk stories and superstitions associated with the religions. And the ill effects they bring to the societies we live in because of them worries the scientists more. The ultimate truth is that no nation has gone to war with another about whose laboratories or technologies are better. Human history is instead replete with wars over religion or the egos of kings. It is true that science has provided the tools for war and given a false or a short term sense of confidence to nations, but it has never, ever suggested war. So associating war with science is like associating horses with war – science has provided the wherewithal for more violent wars but never, ever demanded a war or subjugation of other people. That has been done in the name of God, and kings claiming to be agents of god generally driven by greed or a sense of personal glory.

Extreme political or religious conflicts resolve by war. Extreme scientific conflicts resolve by a search for better data —Neil deGrasse Tyson

A science student once said: "From past experience it is never a debate just two people speaking past each other. Creationists like to challenge scientists to give themselves undeserved credibility. They stack the audience with their acolytes and try to control the process.
Typically they spray out a lot of ridiculous statements like a machine gun spouting bullets. It is nearly always impossible to counter their claims in the time allowed because there are simply so many that there is not enough time to present the real science and give their nonsense the ridicule it deserves.
Even if you get them to agree on basic rules of debate they will break them. If the proceedings are videotaped they will edit out anything embarrassing to their cause and make it look like a victory for them. If the scientist is successful and another party wants to show video of the demolition of the creationist martyr you can guarantee a flock of creationist lawyers will descend like frenzied harpies to intimidate them into silence."

Also, for religious people, their beliefs are their very identity, smartly engraved on their psyche as their core values of what as human beings they should be. They are their own existence without which they think they cannot  live a fruitful and full life. They get rattled and fight with all their might when somebody tries to dislodge them. If scientists are not well armed to deal with these psychological disturbances, they will not succeed. Scientists and writers of Science need to be able to communicate fact, while navigating through the opinions of faith and reason without disturbing the societies they live in. But is maintaining silence the right way?

But presenting data and facts don't win arguments! Why? 

A group of Dartmouth researchers have studied the problem of the so-called "backfire effect," which is defined as the effect in which "corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question." According to them... people typically receive corrective information within “objective” news reports pitting two sides of an argument against each other, which is significantly more ambiguous than receiving a correct answer from an omniscient source. In such cases, citizens are likely to resist or reject arguments and evidence contradicting their opinions – a view that is consistent with a wide array of research. 

So when people read a news story that presents both sides of an issue, they simply pick the side they happen to agree with and it reinforces their viewpoint. But what of those individuals who don't simply resist challenges to their views, but who actually come to hold their original opinion even more strongly?

The authors describe the "backfire effect" as a possible result of

the process by which people counterargue preference-incongruent information and bolster their preexisting views. If people counterargue unwelcome information vigorously enough, they may end up with 'more attitudinally congruent information in mind than before the debate,' which in turn leads them to report opinions that are more extreme than they otherwise would have had."

Also cognitive dissonance, or the uncomfortable tension that comes from holding two conflicting thoughts simultaneously plays a role and makes people reject things that don't make them comfortable processing them. Then people spin-doctor facts to fit preconceived beliefs to reduce dissonance.


The debate can go on and on why scientists need not talk to the people outside the realm of science. Such a hostile and unbearable environment has been created so that scientists have no other go but to retreat and go and confine themselves to their fort like labs. And this situation suits the science-deniers and science-sceptics! Man on the street, beware!

I was on TV, several times, but while inviting me to discuss a controversial subject in science, the TV people also invite an uneducated punditji to counter me. Unable to counter my points, the punditjis raise their voices, bring all sorts of nonsensical issues to sidetrack the subject, use foul language to make me go silent, and use several other cunning techniques to gain an upper hand.

Science journalism is different because you cannot use the same process you use for other forms of journalism here. For other contentious issues, journalists have to report and discuss all the shades of opinions. But it doesn’t work like this in science. More often than not, there is no “opposition party” or “other side” in science. There can be disagreement between various scientists when sometimes the research is incomplete and inconclusive. This can be reported and discussed. But non-experts cannot be given 'opposition status' in science. Someone who objects to scientific facts on non-scientific grounds simply cannot form part of the debate. There is the data and what it means. And there are facts whether anybody agrees with them or not. Period.

So even if the scientists are invited to discuss science on TV, journalists are following a wrong approach.

But still I think scientists should definitely debate creationists despite hearing all the arguments against it. And only after explaining fully what exactly the scientific method is to the common people. This won't legitimise the creationists arguments against evolution but people watching these debates live on TV or following them on other media will realize what is right and what is wrong. Moreover, when creationists realize there is opposition to their beliefs, they will tone down their agressiveness which makes things easy for scientists. Removing opposition will make them more strong. Whether they change their minds or not is not the question here. We should give chance to people to decide for themselves what is right and what is wrong by putting both sides of the debate on equal terms before them. It’s better for experts to appear whenever and wherever spurious claims are raised, to immediately refute and dismiss them. Refusing to work in the area creates a void where others who don't agree with the scientific consensus will fill those positions and create chaos.
If scientific experts refuse to engage with “scientifically bankrupt” arguments, this could send a more potent message: that the fringe claims are irrelevant, not even worth wasting the time to refute. So this would mean they shouldn’t engage with this kind of popular science story.
The scientists' refusal to engage could be re-framed to characterise the experts as remote, arrogant or even afraid, casting doubt on the veracity of the scientific position. So to avoid this impression, experts should engage. Participation in these kinds of popular science debates could also tarnish the reputation of the expert. But not appearing means missing the opportunity to thwart the potential harm caused by fringe, false or non-scientific claims.

A common quandary for much science communication may in fact be that it appeals to those already engaged with science. Or love or like science. But the new science of communication suggests it is certainly worth trying to reach out to those who are disengaged.

According to some experts... these things might work ... 1. keep emotions out of the exchange, 2. discuss, don't attack (no ad hominem and no ad Hitlerum), 3. listen carefully and try to articulate the other position accurately, 4. show respect, 5. acknowledge that you understand why someone might hold that opinion, and 6. try to show how changing facts does not necessarily mean changing worldviews. 

It is an experts' obligation to defend their science, to set the record straight, and to help ensure people are not mislead by poor evidence and corrupt reasoning. This is best done by engaging directly with dubious people and their biased arguments.

Just use the scientists who are better at communicating things, can deal successfully with the psyche of the people of other fields and see the difference.

And, this is extremely important, scientists and science communicators should be trained to deal with the problems mentioned above during their academic careers for a successful science communication.

Watch a funny video that tells the world how the climate debate should actually be conducted








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Replies to This Discussion


The main difference lies in the semantics of the question.
In science, there is no such thing as "unquestionable evidence". You are allowed to question anything you have doubts about in science, and to any extent you choose to question it. Please, be my guest and question everything about evolutionary theory, look at the evidence, study biology, chemistry, archaeology and geology and find out for yourself. Check the validity of the previous papers and books and the credentials of the scientists themselves. It's all open for debate and most scientists will welcome your questions because they are confident in their own good work.
Now, try and do the same for creationism and see how far it gets you except trapped in circular reasoning, unsupported claims and "witness" evidence that is unsubstantiated by physical reality. See how many deep believers in creationism welcome your evidence and questions without turning hostile when you keep digging into their supposed evidence.
A couple of suggested books:
"The Seashell on the Mountaintop" The Seashell on the Mountaintop: Alan Cutler: 9780452285460: Amazon...
gives a good account of the mindset at the beginning of real science: when Europe's encounter with the America's called into question the literal interpretations of the bible's description of the world, and philosophy started to become science (evidence-based instead of just talking about it).
"The Making of the Fittest" The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of ...
explains the real evidence of random mutation and natural selection, and what it means to be adapted to "fit" an environment.
These two books should give you an idea why the debate continues: it's a power struggle between the old guard of mysticism and manipulation vs. investigative reality.
It may be a debate, but it's really an anachronistic philosophical one in an age that has moved beyond finding root causes without experimentation and measurement.

publics might well be engaged, but they are engaged with a particular issue or controversy such as coal seam gas, vaccines, climate change or cancer.

Members of this particular publics don't consider themselves engaged with the topic of science, technology or medicine. They might well care about the science related to the issue, but only because they care about the issue. To that extent they are engaged with science but they may not think of this as an interest in science generally.

First a Noah’s Ark discovery raised a flood of questions, then there was the much-hyped debate over life’s origins between Bill Nye the Science Guy and creationist Ken Ham.

And now this: a scientific report establishing that camels, the basic mode of transportation for the biblical patriarchs, weren’t domesticated in Israel until hundreds of years after Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are said to have wandered the earth.

Using radiocarbon dating of camel bones that showed signs of having carried heavy loads, Israeli archaeologists have dated the earliest domesticated camels to the end of the 10th century BCE.

But according to the traditional biblical chronology, the patriarchs were schlepping around Canaan on camels over a millennium earlier, all the way back in 2100 BCE


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