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Krista Tippett: Drama and Beauty Help Sell Science

News, DoSER Holiday, horsehead, 20131220
Journalist Krista Tippett pointed to images captured by NASA's Hubble space craft as an example of scientists "showing, not telling" — a strategy that helps to convey the "drama" of science to a broader public. | NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

To convey science to a broader audience, including religious leaders, scientists should share the "drama" of the scientific process and the beauty of the natural world, broadcast journalist Krista Tippett said 11 December at AAAS.

"For many, science represents something that is so rapidly changing things, it provokes fear," said Tippett, host of "On Being," a popular public radio program. "You can't have a conversation with fear," she added. "The counter to that is becoming more three-dimensional … Tell stories about moments of discovery. That's fascinating, and that [establishes] a bond."

Tippett, author of Einstein's God: Conversations about Science and the Human Spirit, addressed a packed AAAS auditorium, at the request of the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion (DoSER) program. The holiday lecture and discussion prompted participants to think more deeply about what it means to be human, what matters in a life, and the interplay between science and religion.

Societal tensions around issues such as the teaching of evolution in public science classrooms typically involve only a subset of Christians, and they have too often been depicted as more sweeping conflicts, Tippett argued. Polls such as the 2009 U.S. Religious and Landscape Survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, have suggested that less than half of all Americans accept the scientific theory of evolution. Yet, another 2009 Pew survey found that among those who attend religious services each week, 80% say science has a largely positive effect on society.

Krista Tippett | AAAS

"Opinion polls promote false dichotomies," said Tippett, a former Fulbright Scholar who earned a history degree from Brown University and a Master's degree in divinity from Yale. "Ask Americans to choose between Darwin or God, and they will choose God."

Tippett pointed to images from the Hubble spacecraft, which captivated the public's imagination, as an example of how scientists can work toward "showing, not telling" broader audiences about science. She also called on scientists to remember that words can have multiple meanings and connotations to different audiences, or depending upon their context.

She noted, for instance, citing the work of V.V. Raman of the University of Rochester that the word "why" can be used to ask a question about either the cause or the purpose of an action: A chemist, asked why water is being boiled, might describe the effects of heat on water, while someone else might say, "I wanted a cup of tea." Similarly, light may appear as a wave or as a particle, depending on the type of question that a scientist asks of it.

Tippett acknowledged that scientists must strike a delicate balance between not "dumbing science down," and yet making it more accessible for the public. She emphasized, however, that lay people need not understand, for example, the mechanics of cellular signaling in order to appreciate the potential importance of those events to human health. "I don't understand most of what a biologist or a mathematician knows," said Tippett. "But I have come to really take delight in mathematics as a part of human culture. It's not that I can really see that beauty, but I know it's there."

"The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as of all serious endeavor in art and science."

Albert Einstein, 1932, "My Credo"

Event moderator Jennifer Wiseman, an astronomer and director of the DoSER program at AAAS, asked Tippett how religious leaders and journalists can also help improve science-religion communication. Tippett urged religious leaders to "reintroduce science to religious families." At the conservative Vineyard Boise Church in Idaho, she noted, Senior Pastor Tri Robinson, at the urging of his son and daughter, has become a champion for environmental science. An increasing number of religious leaders describe environmental stewardship of natural resources as "creation care," Tippett noted.

She challenged the notion that science, which deals with facts and physical evidence, is completely dissimilar to religious beliefs. After all, she said, modern science is beginning to yield important insights into empathy, altruism, forgiveness and mindfulness - key human traits of interest to the religious community, too. Scientists and religious believers share a "spirit of inquiry," she said, quoting behavioral geneticist Lindon J. Eaves, an Anglican priest. He has said that scientists and mystics both seek to discern truth while remaining open to what they do not and perhaps cannot know.

While applauding the courage of journalists as they endure major shifts in the media landscape, Tippett said she would like to see more news coverage on a broader array of science-religion issues. Those issues encompass more than just the latest conflicts about the age of the universe or climate change-related language in textbooks, she said. “We have to stop covering only the fights,” Tippett added. “This doesn’t mean it has to be a Kumbayah moment [in news coverage], but we can also cover the drama of science.”

At AAAS, Wiseman and her colleagues are working with seminary leaders who are incorporating more scientific content into curricula for future clergy. The program also provides communication resources for scientists encompassing topics such as behavioral genetics, genetic modifications, population growth and the environment, the origins of life, and more.

A major DoSER survey of perceptions of science and scientists held by several religious groups will be unveiled at the 2014 AAAS Annual Meeting. The DoSER program was established in 1995 to help ease tensions and promote greater understanding of science across society by promoting constructive dialogue between the scientific and religious communities. Last year’s DoSER holiday lecture explored the complex relationship between genes and human identity.