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.
  • Date Published

    September 9, 2021

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.

In part 3, we discuss best practices for public engagement with science, including being strategic, being respectful, and being human.

In part 4, we discuss what it means to “meet people where they are,” with examples from practicing scientists and science communicators.

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!

3. Best Practices for Science Engagement with Faith Communities

We discuss best practices for public engagement with science, including being strategic, being respectful, and being human.

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 3 of our 4-part series on Science Engagement with Faith Communities. In Part 2, we discussed the social and historical context of public engagement with science. Today, we’ll talk about best practices for science engagement with faith communities.

ROB: Whether you want to engage with faith communities or with other groups, your preparations should be guided by three key principles: Being strategic, being respectful, and being human.

RACHEL: Being strategic means being intentional about what you are doing. This includes having a clear goal in mind, including who you want to talk with and where and why. We suggest building your engagement around 3 short key points- the most important ideas you want people to come away with. Remember though, that engagement is about more than sharing your own ideas – it’s about interactions, dialogue, and mutual learning. Don’t just give people facts and figures. Effective science engagement creates opportunities for all participants to share with and learn from each other. This builds trust, establishes relationships, and sets the stage for those involved to take further action.

ROB: Second, being respectful of others, even when you disagree, is critical. Tensions around science topics are often not actually about the science itself, but about identity, culture, values, and worldview.

RACHEL: Everyone has a worldview; you can think of it as a house built from ethics, cultural norms, relationships, personal history, philosophy, and, for many people, faith. Presenting science in a way that directly attacks the foundations of someone’s worldview can be threatening. Most people respond poorly to being insulted or being told that their beliefs are wrong. And many people, including scientists, are motivated to reject information that challenges their core beliefs and values.

ROB: Keeping all this in mind, a good approach is to meet people where they are and to practice cultural humility. This means things like: Not assuming you know what others believe or why. Being open to examining your own beliefs, and being curious about the beliefs of others rather than judgmental. Showing empathy, and making space for people to reflect and ask questions. And you should recognize that what people think isn’t something you decide for them.

RACHEL: The last key principle is to be human. It matters that you are the one engaging. People might wonder what they have in common with you, or whether they can trust you.  You can help make the science relatable and meaningful to them by finding shared values, interests, and concerns. Even if it’s something small, you can build from there. Are you both parents? Sports fans? From Ohio?

ROB: If you are a person of faith, framing your work around cultural or religious values can be a powerful way to challenge preconceptions about scientists. For example, for some communities, environmental justice, conservation, and sustainability can be framed in terms of care of God’s Creation. Although you don’t have to be a person of faith to find these connections, it’s important to be sincere. Be willing to recognize that you may not always be the best messenger; if you are struggling to find relevant connections or common priorities, find ways to engage and support other science communicators who have more in common with that group.

RACHEL: You can also present the science as a story, instead of just presenting dry data and numbers. Stories can show that science is something people do, that anyone can do.

ROB: Stories also can help illustrate that science is a process, not a body of unchanging facts. This can emphasize how science is a way to generate knowledge that doesn’t have to exclude other ways of knowing. You can talk about how uncertainty and humility are central to scientific inquiry. Themes of curiosity, awe, and wonder are very relatable.

RACHEL: Today, we’ve talked about best practices for science engagement with faith communities. Being strategic, respectful, and human will serve you well, whoever you engage with. Be curious and not judgmental. And remember that facts are not enough: ground your approach in shared values and concerns, and in making science relatable and relevant.

ROB: In part four, we’ll discuss some examples of science engagement that share a common theme – meeting people where they are.

Thanks for joining us! See you next time!

4. Meeting People Where They Are

We discuss what it means to "meet people where they are," with examples from practicing scientists and science communicators.

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 the last of our 4-part series on Science Engagement with Faith Communities. In part 3, we talked about best practices. Today, we’ll discuss meeting people where they are, and give some examples of practicing scientists doing just that.

RACHEL: When planning your engagement, think beyond the circles of people you normally interact with. For example, although there’s nothing wrong with giving an evening science lecture on a university campus, you should recognize that not everyone feels welcome in that setting, and not everyone has the time or means to attend. Also, the people that would come are probably already interested in what you have to say.

ROB: You might have a bigger impact by engaging with people who don’t already see themselves as part of science discourse, or who don’t see science as relevant to their lives. Think about how you can bring science conversations or activities into unexpected places. Instead of making them come to you, meet people where they are.

RACHEL: So what does this look like?

Dr. Nalini Nadkarni is a forest ecologist who studies tree canopies. Although not religious herself, she studied how trees are discussed in religious texts, and now gives guest sermons and has dialogues with faith communities on the importance of trees in their sacred writings. She also works with congregations to understand the trees and other plants on their sacred grounds, and participates in conservation activities organized and led by faith communities. This lets her share her scientific expertise and learn about how those communities think about trees and conservation.

Rob: Dr. Salman Hameed is an astronomer who studies and practices science engagement in Muslim communities. Even though Urdu is widely spoken in his native country, Pakistan, quality popular science material is mostly in English. Dr. Hameed and colleagues create online videos in Urdu that cover both general science and astronomy. He also regularly participates in science talks at coffee shops and other informal public settings in Pakistan.

Rachel: Dr. Pamela Payne-Foster is a medical doctor and rural health specialist. In partnership with pastors and other church leaders, she has created and tested workshop modules to help reduce stigma and improve discourse about HIV and AIDS in Black churches and other faith communities.

Rob: Dr. Annette Lee is an astronomer and artist who is part of both the Ojibwe and Dakota/Lakota communities. She integrates informal STEM learning with reclaiming and honoring Indigenous art, culture, and language. She founded Native Skywatchers, which offers workshops for Native children and adults to learn about science and create art that draws on both Western astronomy and Indigenous knowledge.

Rachel: Institutions can also meet people where they are. The Hall of Human Origins at the National Museum of Natural History has a traveling exhibit called, “What does it mean to be human?” They chose that question because anyone, not just scientists, can have an opinion and discuss it. As of 2021, the exhibit has traveled to 19 public libraries and two seminaries across the U.S., offering public programming, workshops and resources for educators.

Rob: Finally, “meeting people where they are” also applies to classrooms. Drs. Liz Barnes, Sara Brownell, and colleagues studied impacts of making time to thoughtfully discuss tensions and concerns about evolution and faith in classrooms. In a 2017 study, they found that spending just a few minutes on this topic in introductory biology classes significantly reduced students’ perceptions of conflict between evolutionary theory and religion.

Rachel: These are just a few examples of scientists practicing inclusive science engagement with faith communities. There are many ways to meet people where they are. Figure out what works for you!

Rob: This has been the last of our four-part series on Science Engagement with Faith Communities. We hope this series has helped you think about inclusive science engagement. You can find more information about our program and free resources at aaas.org/DoSER or ScienceReligionDialogue.org, including profiles of some of the scientists we mentioned today. You can find us on Twitter at AAAS underscore DoSER or on Facebook at AAAS dot DoSER. We would love to hear feedback about this series, and about your experiences in science engagement with faith communities. Thank you for joining us!

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