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.