Science Engagement with Faith Communities Video Series

A series of 4 short videos covers important points about science engagement such as ensuring it is inclusive, its social and historical context, best practices, and meeting people where they are.

This 4-part video series provides an overview of public engagement with science with a focus on people and communities of faith.

In part 1, we discuss inclusive public engagement with science, why scientists should engage, and note that the majority of U.S. adults are religious.

In part 2, we discuss the social and historical context of public engagement with science, including perceptions of science and scientists, the harm science has caused to certain communities, and how multiple factors influence views on science topics.

Part 3 (on best practices for public engagement with science) and part 4 (highlighting ways to meet people where they are, with examples from practicing scientists) will be released by December 2021.

1. Inclusive Public Engagement with Science

We discuss public engagement with science, why scientists should engage, and note that the majority of U.S. adults are religious.

Video Transcript:

Rob: Hello! I’m Rob O’Malley.

Rachel: And I’m Rachel Kline.

Rob: We’re joining you from the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (or “DoSER” for short), a program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Rachel: Since 1995, DoSER has facilitated communication and engagement about science between scientific and religious communities, recognizing that these often overlap.

This is part 1 of our 4-part series on Science Engagement with Faith Communities. Today we’ll discuss why considering culture, including faith and spirituality, is important for inclusive public engagement with science.

Rob: Science is part of our lives. The science and society relationship is complex; it can be constructive, disruptive, or something in between. It’s critical for scientists to hear diverse perspectives on science and technology to help identify potential challenges and problems, to evaluate solutions, and to find common ground. Public engagement with science can help integrate public views and scientific expertise to inform personal and communal action, including policy.

Rachel: So, what is public engagement with science? AAAS defines it as “intentional, meaningful interactions that provide opportunities for mutual learning between scientists and members of the public.” This includes:

o   Multi-directional dialogue that incorporates varied perspectives

o   Listening to and respecting diverse communities and individuals

o   Addressing the benefits and limitations of science

o   Being responsive to issues and concerns raised through discussion

Rob: Historically, science communication has focused on presenting facts and data clearly. In more recent years, research on science communication has consistently shown that just providing facts and data doesn’t necessarily influence people’s opinions. Facts are important, but facts are not enough. A growing body of research suggests that engagement, as we’ve just described it, is more impactful.

Rachel: So public engagement with science is important, but why should scientists themselves do it? Scientists have valuable expertise in their areas of study, and there are many topics where their direct involvement as experts can be important for framing, understanding, or discussing science topics or issues. It’s important to remember, though, that in these discussions, scientists aren’t just talking with other scientists, and scientists aren’t the only ones with expertise or insight on science and society issues. This means scientists should be prepared to engage constructively with policymakers and communities too.

Rob: Happily, Americans are broadly supportive of science. According to a survey done every 2 years since the 1980’s, this support has remained fairly consistent. Interestingly, other studies suggest that most Americans learn about science from popular media, informal science settings like museums, or their social networks and communities, and not through formal science education.

Rachel: So… why is it important to engage with religious people about science? Well, most people, both in the U.S. and worldwide, self-identify as religious or spiritual. Many scientists also identify as religious. And whether you’re religious or not, you are probably already regularly engaging with people of faith, so it’s worth thinking about how to do that in ways that are constructive and impactful.

Rob: It’s also important to think about how faith can intersect with other elements of identity. In a 2015 national survey, more than ¾ of US adults claimed a specific religious identity, and a similar fraction affirmed that religion is “somewhat” or “very” important in their lives. Each of us has a personal worldview, which influences our understanding and decision-making, and is informed by the many aspects of our identity. For most Americans, faith or spirituality is one of those aspects.

Rachel: Also remember that many faith communities are already engaged on many science and society issues, for example environmental justice or health inequity. These institutions and communities can be important collaborators in promoting constructive public discourse, ethical scientific practice, evidence-based policy, and pro-science advocacy.

Rob: For all these reasons, as you’re considering how to engage people inclusively, you should think about the role faith may play in shaping people’s opinions about science and technology.

Today, we’ve talked about what public engagement with science is, why scientists should do it, and why people of faith should be part of that engagement. In part two, we’ll discuss the social and historical context of public engagement with science.

Thanks for joining us! See you next time!

2. The Social and Historical Context of Public Engagement with Science

We discuss perceptions of science and scientists, the harm science has caused to certain communities, and how multiple factors influence views on science topics.

Video Transcript:

Rob: Hello! I’m Rob O’Malley.

Rachel: And I’m Rachel Kline.

We’re joining you from the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion, or “DoSER” for short, a program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Rob: Since 1995, DoSER has facilitated communication and engagement about science between scientific and religious communities, recognizing that these often overlap.

This is part 2 of our 4-part series on Science Engagement with Faith Communities. In part 1, we discussed why scientists should engage with people of faith. Today, we’ll discuss the social and historical context of public engagement with science, particularly as it relates to religion and faith.

Rachel: As we saw in Part 1, national surveys suggest the U.S. public is generally supportive of science and technology. On specific science topics, there are differences in opinion between scientists and the public, but that’s not necessarily because the public doesn’t understand science. Science doesn’t exist in a vacuum; political views, age, gender, race and ethnicity, and cultural background, including faith, can all influence views on science topics, whether someone is a scientist or not.

Rob: Views about science are also informed by perceptions of scientists as people. Research suggests that scientists are viewed as competent, but not particularly warm or trustworthy. In popular media, scientists are often depicted as socially awkward, obsessed, and hostile – or at least indifferent – to people of faith.

Rachel: In addition, science has sometimes been used in unethical ways. The United States Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell allowed the state to practice eugenics and forcibly sterilize people declared “feeble-minded.” The U.S. government’s Tuskegee syphilis experiments directly and indirectly caused immense suffering and death among the Black victims and their families. This kind of history matters because it informs communities’ perceptions of scientists in the present.

Rob: It’s also critical to understand that it’s not just history – for many communities, racism and prejudice in science and medicine has continued, and is an ongoing, lived experience.

Rachel: For example, Indigenous communities continue to face hostility and dismissal of their concerns from scientists and other scholars. Black people are systematically under-treated for pain compared to White people. And in 2021, even as coronavirus vaccinations increased and overall infection rates were dropping, in Washington D.C., for example, the racial disparities in who became infected got steadily worse.

Rob: Inclusive science engagement requires an acknowledgement and discussion of the relevant cultural and historical context.

Rachel: We mentioned in part 1 that most U.S. adults identify as religious or spiritual. It’s important to recognize that religion is a cultural practice that is lived; it isn’t just about where or how someone worships. Similarly, although scripture and sacred writings are foundational to some faiths, reading them isn’t enough to understand those religions. Scientists should understand that religion can influence many aspects of a person’s life — diet, family, career, political and social views, and ideas about science.

Rob: Formal religion is also distinct from one’s personal spirituality. People in the same religious group can have very different opinions on a given topic, even on subjects like evolution. We shouldn’t assume that we know what someone thinks about a science topic just because they identify as religious.

Rachel: For example, in one 2015 survey, 6 in 10 of Americans agreed that science and religion often conflict. BUT, in the same survey, only 3 in 10 religious Americans said that science sometimes or often conflicted with their own religious beliefs. This could mean that the idea that there is conflict is self-perpetuating; it encourages people to believe there is more conflict than they personally experience.

Rob: Finally, it’s important to recognize that scientific and religious communities do overlap. As a group, American scientists tend to be more secular than the American public. However, in a 2016 survey, about 30% of biology or physics Ph.D.’s in the U.S. self-identified as religious. Many aspiring and early-career scientists and students also identify as religious. One can be a person who values faith and science.

Rachel: Today, we’ve talked about how science is embedded within a historical and social context. A number of factors influence views on science topics, which means that you can’t predict someone’s beliefs just because you know their faith. Most people worldwide value both faith and science. All of this is important when trying to create inclusive science spaces and constructive science discourse.

In part three, we’ll discuss best practices for science engagement with faith communities. Thanks for joining us! See you next time!

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