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Monday, February 18, 2008

Science in a Religious America (Update from AAAS)

There was a lot of talk about labeling, otherwise known as "framing," at the "Communicating Science in a Religious America" session yesterday. Matthew Nisbet, a professor in the school of communication at American University, spoke about the value of connecting evolution to social progress, while Steven Case, assistant director of The University of Kansas Center for Science Education, argued that scientists need to connect evolution to a "bigger picture of application and relevancy that leads to hope." When it comes to emerging technologies like nanotechnology and embryonic stem cell research, people will form attitudes even in the absence of scientific information, said Dietram Scheufele, a professor of life sciences communication and journalism & mass communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Scientists need to understand that, for some, religiosity serves as an "interpretive tool" when it comes to new technologies, he said, and public outreach needs to address issues outside the realm of the science. "Many religious audiences are informed," Scheufele said, but scientists need to "provide information that will address the gaps and religious concerns they may have." In other words, there's a difference between understanding the science and believing in it.
Overall, said David Goldston, former chief of staff of the House Committee on Science and Technology and a visiting lecturer at the Center for the Environment at Harvard University, communicating science in a religious America is both harder and easier than many scientists imagine. "Science, in many ways, undermines a simple religious view of the world, and it always has," he said, which leads to issues that are bigger than communication problems. But scientists rank high when it comes to credibility, he said, and people will live with contradictory thoughts and ideas, he's found, "rather than having to come up with a cosmology that will make all these things fit." —Heather Wax