Scientists, particularly biologists, are frequently confronted with controversial topics such as evolution, vaccines, GMOs, and stem cells. It is imperative that we share our expertise and contribute to the conversation on these issues. However, we should approach these conversations in a respectful and productive manner. Below are helpful tips for approaching challenging discussions and responding respectfully.
Tactics for a Productive Discussion
- Take the time to first understand your audience’s perspective before bringing your own. As in all communication, listening and asking questions is as important, and perhaps more so, than trying to get your own points across. Doing so demonstrates that you are willing to learn from the other person and are not there to simply bring out knowledge.
- Select sources of information thoughtfully. Knowing your audience can help you choose which sources of information to use. Ensure the sources are both credible and rational (i.e., are based on scientific deductions and are from scientific organizations, publications, or experts). Think about the circumstances: in some cases it is best to rely on apolitical sources, while in others a more trusted source might be a famous scientist who is openly religious.
- Keep content accurate and simple. Avoid exaggeration, and present fact-based material. Including too many arguments/caveats is counterproductive and confusing. Try to relate your information to familiar concepts while avoiding jargon and condescension. Graphical presentations are the best!
- Engage your audience/discussion partner. Involving your conversation partner/audience in the discussion helps you learn their view and understanding of the topic.
- Remain civil and positive. Difficult discussions can turn ugly, particularly in an online public forum. Arguing back or losing your cool in the face of insults will not win the argument and may further estrange your audience/conversation partner.
- When possible, communicate one-on-one.Moving to private discussions can help shift to a more civil tone and provide skeptical discussion partners more freedom to ask questions.
Resources for Controversial Topics in Biology
- A collection of narrated animations that explain fundamentals of genetics and evolution
- ASCB Position Paper on Stem Cells
- Frequently Asked Questions on Fetal Tissue Research (ASCB)
Resources for Productive Discussion Techniques
- Teaching controversial topics. Yale Center for Teaching and Learning.
- Barnes ME and Brownell SE. Practices and perspectives of college instructors on addressing religious beliefs when teaching evolution. CBE Life Sci Educ. 2016;15(2):ar18.
- Perry J. If they have not learned, you have not taught: A friendly guide to debating evolution with friends, family, and strangers on the internet. Reports of the NCSE. 2017;37(3):4-6.
- Gewin V. Outreach: Speak up for science. Nature. 2015; 517:231-233.
- Cook J and Lewandowsky S. The Debunking Handbook. Lucia, Austria: University of Queensland. 2011.
- The Alda Center for Communicating Science
- Video: Turning down the heat on controversial topics like Climate Change, Waleed Abdalati | TEDxMileHigh