AAAS: Scientists in Civic Life: Facilitating Dialogue-Based Communication

An excellent report was just published by the AAAS. This is a must read for all of us, especially @NLENTS, @Art @Mercer, and myself. For that matter, Coyne might want to look at this, though I am not sure he will like it.

Engagement with diverse communities is a growing interest for many scientists and science communicators. A majority of Americans consider scientific knowledge essential, authoritative and a source of hope, but also take other factors into account during civic discussions, such as socio-economic status, race, political identity, and religious beliefs. Successful outreach efforts include an understanding of these factors and the ability to connect around shared values and identities. Scientists in Civic Life provides an overview of the science communication research, public perceptions of science, and strategies for encouraging fruitful dialogue about science and society.

This booklet was produced as part of the ‘Engaging Scientists in the Science and Religion Dialogue’ project, a joint effort by the DoSER program and the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology. The author, Matthew Nisbet, is a Professor of Communication Studies and Affliate Professor of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University.

Some of the recommendations:

Scientists and their organizations need to foster and participate in forms of dialogue about science and society across a variety of social settings.

Here is another one:

If scientists are to facilitate conversations about science and technology among more diverse audiences, they must also work to build relationships with trusted opinion-leaders from these groups.

@Rogero, what do you think we can learn from this report? Would there be interest in inviting Matthew Nisbet to discuss this further here?

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@NLENTS, @Art, @mercer, @patrick, I hope you read this closely.

I read this report and my position remains in line with Jerry Coyne in that AAAS shouldn’t get involved in the science/faith public dialogue. Since I am not a member of AAAS, I will leave it up to the members to decide what they want to do within AAAS. I agree that Scientists and their organizations need to foster and participate in forms of dialogue about science and society across a variety of social settings. But Churches aren’t one of these places. Religions are losing most of the adherents as people’s scientific education improves. This is a natural process that AAAS can help along by NOT engaging the science/faith debate and just sticking to science education outreach to the public.

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@patrick, have you read the report yet? Would you please hear them out?

I did read it. I am fine with 95% of it. I am all for science engagement with public with regard to things that effect society now like climate change and even GMOs. The part I think is a waste of time and resources is trying to reach people who have been indoctrinated by their religion to be anti-evolution and anti-science. Let them be ignorant. Just don’t elect them to public policy positions. The whole origins question that we talk about here is no longer mainstream. Religion is dying for other reasons. Young people are dropping out due to apathy. Scientists need to engage the public on science and solving real problems.

Here is what Neil deGrasse Tyson has done about Science in America:

You’ve exlained the part with which you disagree. What did you learn about persuasion? What do you agree with here?

Unfortunately, some of them to get elected or appointed to public policy positions.


I agree with all the outreach with the public except the outreach to religious leaders, seminaries, churches, and Christian colleges and universities. If some Christians want to educate their children to be ignorant of science, go ahead. But when they are jobless in a secular scientific society, they shouldn’t blame the science community for their folly.

I disagree with you here, Patrick, as one thing you seem to be ignoring is the fact that those children can make plenty of money fooling the rubes, regardless of whether they are fooling themselves at the same time.

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You are probably right about this. There is a lot of money to be made in pumping up religion.

I don’t agree with this. Especially the bit about Christian colleges and universities. I think that most of the students at these places are there because they have few or no other options - these may be the places that give them the most affordable options, the only places that parents or grandparents will pay for, the places where their friends are going, the places closest to home, etc., etc. Just like parents everywhere, those who send their kids to Christian schools want, at the end of the day, a positive outcome. They are just as likely to be disappointed, even angry, at poor outcomes (such as leaving school with a pile of debt and no relevant job prospects). These families deserve the same respect and opportunities as families with kids at secular institutions.

There is nothing wrong with reaching out to these students, giving them opportunities, mentoring, and otherwise helping them reach their dreams (that, almost invariably, do not involve anti-science activism). Indeed, if my own first-hand experience is any indication, good outcomes for mentor and mentee are very possible. One friendship and positive outcome influences, not just a single student, but siblings, parents, grandparents, and a circle of acquaintances. In a nutshell, the returns are manyfold greater, and a much more positive opinion of science and scientists is the result.

(I have had experience with one of the most conservative, and mocked, Christian colleges in the country. I won’t name it, out of respect for the people involved. However, I would say that, if gems are to be found there, they can be found anywhere.)


It’s a good thing atheists don’t write books for the money!


I think there are plenty of secular universities and colleges including community colleges where science outreach should be done. I am not for any entanglement between secular science education and religion. Now given it is not something I would do, I wouldn’t stop Christian members of AAAS from doing such outreach to their churches and Christian schools. Undoubtedly it is not against the AAAS bylaws to do this. My professional society IEEE, it would be against the bylaws on religious institutions but have no problem with historically black colleges and historical all woman colleges even if they are affiliated with a particular religion. So it depends. I would want to decide on a case by case basis.

I get why you would say that but I think it’s generally more complicated than that. At my university (a Christian liberal arts university) the science faculty almost all come with PhDs from secular R1 schools and our curriculum and the content of our science courses is basically no different than at a secular university. What we do as an intentional faith community is, roughly, to add to the secular science content, not replace it. We are a top producer of nurses, teachers, and counselors in our state, all of which must meet all the same accreditation and state licensing exams as secular institutions. We have a pretty diverse student population (all flavors of Christianity, but also some Jewish, Islamic, and atheist) so we don’t expect students to just agree with every theological statement we make. As faculty and staff, we are more free to live out our faith in a public way than at secular institutions, but the mission of the university is not indoctrination (despite what some parents think).

As an example, Thursday we are having a “chapel” on Creation Care which will include theology faculty talking about the doctrine of creation and the stewardship mandate … but I’m also giving a “even if you’re not religious you should care about the environment” talk on climate change, sustainability, etc.

@Patrick, I know you see religion as a negative, but while religion is in decline in some ways, it’s still a major part of American (and global) society. So while you’re waiting for the great atheist takeover, you can either ignore religious folks and make a tiny dent in affecting the American public on important issues (climate change) or you can work with religious folks to help them understand why it is important to them too.


Yes religion and in particular Christianity will always be part of American life. But the real issue is the perception of Christian privilege in society and morality. As America becomes more secular, it is the Christian right who is doubling down and getting more vocal, more demanding that all of society adhere to its values, its morality. Certainly not all Christians but certainly the loudest voices of money and power.

I know some atheists like to make the argument that the world would be better off without religion, but I don’t think that is a logical conclusion. Like it or not, religion is a conerstone of society and plays an important role in people’s lives and culture. ""IF** we could make religion go away tomorrow, a void would exist, a sort of power-vacuum if you want to think of it that way. Something would replace religion pretty quickly, and it might be worse than the situation atheists already dislike. It’s not logical or reasonable to assume that things can only get better.

Although there are aspects of religion I dislike, I’m not prepared to say the world would be better off without it. Rather than just complain about religion, I try to show that science and reasonable faith are not in conflict.


I think the world would be a better place by the softening of the influence of religion. Less institution power, more individual introspective religion.

Agreed. Very much agreed.

I don’t think I disagree with that, though I may disagree as to the degree of softening. I think large scale political/institutional power has done a lot of harm to American Christianity. I personally think we’d be better off getting our own communities in order and leading by example rather than trying to load the Supreme Court or “take back” government. It’s too easy to sell your soul to gain power and double down to keep power. We Christians need a better understanding of “faithful witness” in plural and secular societies. We can all agree that murder is wrong, without having to launching into foundational apologetics, establishing inerrancy of the Bible, and then fight over posting the ten commandments first.