Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A Chance for Dialogue

A Dominican monk, an evolutionary biologist and a young earth creationist walk into a room. No, this isn’t the set up to a joke; it’s the three people that walked into the conference hall ahead of me as I went to my morning session at the Perceptions: Science and Religious Communities conference.
The conference was hosted by the Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion (DoSER) branch of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The goal of the conference was not to reach consensus on any topic in particular, but instead to explore venues where religious and scientific communities could engage in discussion.

As a science communication student, I found my morning and afternoon sessions very insightful. The panellists discussed different methods and strategies for encouraging conversation between scientific and religious communities, but I found that their suggestions might also be used in a variety of situations where there are tensions between scientific communities and other groups. However, one thing that was striking from a communication standpoint is that the scientists were not stellar communicators. Many of them fell into their classroom or conference lecture habits, which aren’t particularly engaging for the general public.

Don’t get me wrong: there were some good communicators from the science crowd (even one or two great ones), but few came close to the pastors and reverends. If there is one thing that religion can teach to science, it is how to reach a wide public audience in terms they understand.

When a reverend or pastor took the microphone they never started by looking at notes. Instead they scanned the audience, getting to know the crowd in those fractions of a second. They never used power point slides. Instead they painted images with words. Often they spoke with a storytelling style: beginning, middle, end. Short asides of personal experiences made things relatable. They also knew they couldn’t cover everything, so they didn’t. By being focused and on point they were easy to follow. At the end, a simple acknowledgement that there was more left unsaid – something for a future discussion – left their talks open, but not wanting.

If I may be so bold, I’d suggest that pastors and scientists grab a coffee now and again. Scientists could pick up a few tips on public lectures, while pastors would get a chance to pick the brains of experts on some diverse and amazing topics.

This idea, of getting to know a person or a group that you are dialoguing with, was a point on which all parties at the conference agreed. Too often we are stuck in our little communities with no meaningful contact with others outside these spheres. This leads to misconceptions, stereotypes and wild assumptions that just don’t hold true. People talking at each other, rather than to each other, is something of which both sides of the science and religion discussion are guilty.

One parable told in the closing remarks stuck with me: Standing on the plains, I saw a monster on the horizon. As it approached, I saw it was an animal. As it drew even closer, I saw it was a human. When we were face to face, it was my brother.

It sums up a lot of strategies that came out of the conference on how to start a meaningful discussion: to take risks and get up close to try and understand a different point of view, to be willing to listen, to break bread. This way you spend your time talking with a friend, not yelling at a fictitious monster on the horizon.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Student Perspective: Reconciling science and faith

The following post was written jointly by Jenny Kliever and Kevin Mogk, both current SCOM students. Laurentian University hosts many guest speakers throughout the year, and Jenny and Kevin were eager to share their thoughts on a particularly interesting public lecture held in late 2014.

Jenny: Science communication is a relatively new field, as science fields go, and until a fateful Google search brought the Laurentian Science Communication program before my eyes a year ago, I was unaware of its existence. Within five minutes of reading the website, I knew that this program was for me. 

Kevin: Much like Jenny, I was unaware of science communication as a topic of study, even though my job entailed delivering science programs to school groups and the public in my hometown’s science gallery. When I discovered the Laurentian program, what drew me in was the opportunity to sharpen my skills and bridge the gap between my lack of science training and my theatrical background.

J: So here Kevin and I are, science communication students, marrying the exciting fields of science and society on a daily basis – what a dream! Though it is hard to pick just one favourite aspect of the program, something that stands out is the freedom to explore my own ideas within the courses. For example, I come from a physics background and have had the chance to explore communication within physics as much or as little as I like.  

K: Not only do we get to explore personal interests through the program, but the range of experiences of our classmates, teachers and guest lecturers also brings a wealth of perspectives on science communications and the issues it faces. Even between Jenny and I, we have had opportunities to explore how faith and science are often seen in opposition. So when we had a chance to attend an optional lecture by Dr. Denis Lamoureux about one of the more prevalent issues facing science communication, we couldn’t help but take in his lecture on “Beyond the ‘Evolution’ vs. ‘Creation’ Debate”.

J: Although SCOM students are always encouraged to attend the many events outside of class, Kevin and I didn’t need to be told twice about Dr. Lamoureux’s lecture. We showed up early, pens in hand, front row and centre, minds and ears open. This is a topic I, as a scientist, find extremely interesting. The talk focused on breaking the traditional view that science and faith are a dichotomy; that is, one can only identify with one or with the other and either believe in evolution or creation.

K: However, Dr. Lamoureux brought to light a spectrum of views ranging from fundamental to atheistic and everything in between to highlight that there are not just two camps to choose from. He also pointed out that it is not uncommon to find people of faith who are in step with science, and scientists who also practice their faith. It was a refreshing look at the issue and made me wonder if there wasn’t a research question hidden somewhere in this long-held oppositional view.

J: For the SCOM program’s major research project, we are now both exploring research topics that touch on science and faith. We would like to dig into this topic deeper and may even get the chance to spread the idea of this spectrum within the scientific and faith communities a little bit.