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Guest Thinkers

AAAS Panel: Communicating Science in a Religious America

[Image from feature on panelist Barbara J. King]

Full details are now available for the previously announced panel on Communicating Science in a Religious America at February’s AAAS meetings in Boston.

180-Minute Symposium
Communicating Science in a Religious America

Sunday, Feb 17, 2008, 1:45 PM – 4:45 PM


Over the coming decades, as society faces major collective choices on issues such as climate change, biomedical research, and nanotechnology, scientists and their organizations will need to work together with religious communities to formulate effective policies and to resolve disputes. A major challenge for scientists will be to craft communication efforts that are sensitive to how religiously diverse publics process messages but also to the way science is portrayed across types of media. In these efforts, scientists should adopt a language that emphasizes shared values and has broad appeal, avoiding the pitfall of seeming to condescend to fellow citizens or alienating them by attacking their religious beliefs. Part of this process includes “framing” an issue in ways that remain true to the science but that make the issue more personally meaningful, thereby potentially sparking greater interest or acceptance. With these themes in mind, the panel combines the insights of scientists who have been successful at engaging religious publics with the findings of researchers on how media messages and opinion leaders shape the perspectives of citizens. The panelists draw on their experience working across the issues of evolution, climate change, stem cell research, and nanotechnology.

Organized by:

Matthew C. Nisbet, American University, Washington, DC


Moderator–David Goldston, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ

Evolution and “Intelligent Design”–Kenneth R. Miller, Brown University, Providence, RI

The scientific and legal failings of the intelligent design (ID) movement stand in sharp contrast to its substantial gains in public support. The popular support the ID movement has received points to a profound failure on the part of the scientific community to articulate its message in the public square. ID’s intentionally vague use of the word “design” has been at the heart of its successes. I will suggest ways in which the scientific community can reclaim this term and publicly place the anti-evolution movement in its proper context outside the scientific mainstream.

Evolving God in America: A Role for Agnosis in the Science of Religion–Barbara J. King, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA

In engaging broader audiences, scientists can sometimes be most effective by refusing to ground their arguments in personal belief. King uses as a leading example her book Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion (Doubleday 2007). When writing about the prehistory of religion, King let reasonable speculation about the data on chimpanzee empathy, Neandertal burial, and Homo sapiens ritual be the “hook” for introducing religious audiences to the scientific research in the area. She finds that this narrative, case-study approach conveys science to publics who are hungry to read primarily about religion, but who might not otherwise seek out information about science.

The “New Atheism” and the Public Image of Science–Matthew C. Nisbet, American University, Washington, DC

Several best-selling authors have sparked widespread media attention with their argument that science undermines the validity of religious belief, or even in many cases, respect for religion. Yet how is the substance of their message transformed in a conflict hungry and ideologically fragmented media system? This presentation reviews quantitative content analysis data on the media representation of the “New Atheism,” comparing recent coverage to more than two decades of news attention to science and religion.

Science Communication at the Local and Grass-Roots Level–Steven Case, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS

With three decades of experience working on science curriculum issues in Kansas, Steve Case reviews research and lessons learned on what it means for a scientist to engage in productive community dialogue. Case has come to view dialogue as a communication process in which citizens conceptualize and perceive specific pathways to achieving collective goals. Case argues, however, that scientists are too often seen by the public as removing pathways toward collective goals, with negative emotional reactions a result.

How Scientists and Engineers Make Sense of Religion–Br. Guy Consolmagno, Vatican Observatory, Tucson, AZ

In science/religion discussions one fact is often overlooked: many scientists and engineers are also active churchgoers. On the basis of a number of interviews with scientists and engineers in Silicon Valley, the nature of these differences and their implications for how scientists communicate their results to non-scientific religious audiences will be explored. Most scientists and engineers are unaware of the religious beliefs of their co-workers, and often feel they must hide their own religious beliefs, for reasons ranging from a perceived loss of status for those who are “religious”, to the difficulties of talking about religion without the discussions turning hostile or emotionally threatening. Likewise, they feel hesitant to talk about their science in their churches for fear of negative reactions from their fellow churchgoers. Furthermore, the religion practiced by scientists and engineers often doesn’t look like the religion being preached from the pulpits. This difference often colors the way scientists speak in religious settings, in surprising and unintended ways.

Engaging Religious Audiences on Nanotechnology–Dietram A. Scheufele, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI

As nanotechnology emerges on the public agenda, citizens are struggling to make sense of a technology they know little about. Similar to other scientific controversies, such as GMOs or stem cell research, individuals therefore use their value systems and religious beliefs to make sense of new information and media messages about these emerging technologies. Based on his work as co-leader of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University, Scheufele discusses findings from a series of national surveys for public policy and future trends in public opinion. He also presents recommendations on the types of messages that religious audiences are likely to respond to on nanotechnology, and the communication channels by which they are likely to be reached.


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