A Scientist’s Guide To Talking With Humans


If you’re a scientist or fan of science, then chances are you probably really enjoy talking about science. I’m just guessing here. Maybe it’s the latest exciting results from some experiment or observation. Maybe it’s some new idea in the field of your preference that gets your neurons really sparkling. Maybe it’s some far-out theoretical concept that only a small handful of people in the world pretend to understand. Whatever it is, if given the opportunity you will pour forth, recklessly sharing your joy of science.

And chances are too that you run into people that aren’t necessarily big fans of science. Maybe they’re just apathetic, and what excites you doesn’t really get their motor going. Maybe they think that what you’re saying is nonsense, and it’s not worth devoting brain cells to those thoughts. Maybe they’re anti-science. Maybe they feel threatened by science or scientific ideas, whether it’s the big bang or climate change or evolution or anything else.

So here you are, a fan of science, talking to a non-fan. What do you do?

Despite the simplistic nature of the question, there’s no simple easy bite-sized answer on how to deal with people who don’t enjoy (or actively hate) science. Every single person coming into this situation is unique. They have their own reasons, their own biases, their own expectations, their own ideas.

It’s very easy (and very tempting) to escalate the situation. After all, you’re very passionate about your love of science, and it’s very easy to want to defend things that you’re passionate about. And besides, you don’t just have an opinion, you have statements backed up by evidence and mathematical rigor and all the infrastructure of science sitting behind you. So if someone disagrees with what you’re saying, then a simple explanation of the evidence should be enough to dissuade them of their wayward thoughts.

Sounds great, except it never works.

Humans are not machines with simple inputs and simple outputs. We’re not wired to simply absorb information and immediately change our viewpoints. Our beliefs come about from a complex, tangled interplay of facts, evidence, memories, expressions, desires, upbringing, culture, and so much more.

Changing someone’s mind is not a simple matter of inputting you information. It requires almost a complete neurological rewiring. It’s almost as if that when you change your mind, you become an entirely different person. Now you can see why it’s a little bit more challenging than you might realize. People do respond to facts. But they also respond to emotions, stories, history, and perspectives. Rarely facts alone do the job.

And then you have to ask: what is the real goal? Do you really want to change – or need to change – someone’s mind? Or is the true goal to find common understanding and common ground on things you do agree about so that you can build bridges together? Perhaps the person who’s anti-science isn’t the one who needs their mind changed after all.

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