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PART II: “I don’t believe in evolution.”


by Robert O'Malley

In Part I, I provided background for thinking about science topics such as evolution that can be challenging to discuss productively in some contexts.  Now I’ll share one approach that has worked well for me in informal settings.

The AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology defines public engagement with science as “intentional, meaningful interactions that provide opportunities for mutual learning between scientists and members of the public. Mutual learning refers not just to the acquisition of knowledge, but also to increased familiarity with a breadth of perspectives, frames, and worldviews” (on both the part of the scientist and the public). The AAAS Science Communication Toolkit also presents a paradigm for structuring public engagement activities, which includes having clear ideas about goals, audiences, and messages for engagement.

With that in mind, how should a scientist or science communicator respond to a statement like, “I don’t believe in evolution”? Let’s consider this within the AAAS framework.

Goal: A positive interaction that respects the individual and is true to the science.

This goal is realistic for the context, which may be a very short interaction. While it’s tempting to consider how to condense evolution down to a few simple concepts, keep in mind that the tensions at play here are not necessarily about the facts. They can also be about culture and worldview. A short interaction is *not* the time or place to grapple with the complexities of evolutionary theory.  It could be a starting point for an individual to learn something new that’s related to it, or consider something challenging in a new light. Or, it could be an opportunity to reinforce some of the negative perceptions of scientists noted earlier- which is something you probably want to avoid.

Audience: A person experiencing tension between what they believe and the scientific evidence presented in an informal science setting.

Context is critical.  Over a semester-long course, it is possible to engage with a student on challenging material in a range of different ways, and give them time to reflect, consider, and ask questions. That opportunity isn’t available in a brief and informal interaction.

One shouldn’t assume that a person who says they don’t believe in evolution is somehow anti-science, foolish, or necessarily looking to start an argument. Evolution is undeniably a complex and challenging concept, and it is poorly covered in K-12 education in the U.S.  In addition, many people are well-versed in the facts surrounding evolution and still do not accept them. As noted in Part 1, an individual’s opinions about evolution are as much about personal identity as about understanding of the scientific evidence.

You may want to start by acknowledging the individual’s position, such as by saying,  “I understand.  Many people feel that way, and evolution is certainly a complex and potentially challenging topic.”  However, considering the above goal and audience, I’d then suggest trying to strategically narrow the scope of the engagement. “Maybe we can talk about something smaller and more tangible - like bones and teeth.” This allows me to focus on two messages I want them to take from the exchange.

1) Teeth and bone can tell us a lot about animals – including age, health and diet.
2) The teeth and bone of living animals can help us learn about animals we can’t directly observe in life.

As a general rule of thumb, your messages in science engagement should be memorable, miniature, and meaningful. The messages above have the benefit of being (a) uncontroversial, (b) true to the science, (c) provide some opportunities for questions and discussion, and (d) potential lead-ins to more substantive discussions about evolution or human origins specifically, if the opportunity presents itself.  For example, without direct reference to the “E” word, we can talk about how the wear patterns of teeth reflect diet (including the limitations on what can be inferred from toothwear). We can talk about other information captured by teeth, such as individual’s age and health. And so on. 

Be friendly. Be strategic. Be human.
Effective science engagement in a nutshell: Be friendly. Be strategic. Be human. | Photo: Atlantic Photography Boston

These interactions may not always begin in good faith - some people really do want to start an argument or embarrass you, rather than engage seriously with evolutionary concepts.  My advice in such cases is to be friendly and polite, and not exhaust yourself or allow yourself to be drawn into a debate. Winning an argument might be viscerally satisfying but isn’t likely to actually change anyone’s mind, and as noted in Part 1, may actually backfire with the person you are interacting with (not to mention with any third-party observers who see the usual narratives of science-faith conflict playing out in real time).

I encourage you to focus your energy and efforts on communicating your genuine enthusiasm, interest and love of science, and the nature of scientific inquiry. Be prepared to acknowledge what you don’t know - humility goes a long way. Be prepared to listen. And finally, be prepared to point them in the direction of other accessible resources to investigate on their own.

Science engagement doesn’t always have to be focused on ‘controversial’ topics.  However, I hope that by sharing this perspective on an issue that does tend to be challenging in a public engagement setting, it will encourage scientists and science communicators to remember that engagement is not simply an opportunity to bring others around to their way of thinking. Instead, engagement should be viewed as an opportunity for both scientists and the public to ask questions, pose ideas and reflect on scientific concepts and ideas together, in a genuine dialogue. That creates space for a more constructive interaction that might serve as a starting point for an individual to consider how they might incorporate a concept like evolution into their worldview.


About Rob O'Malley
Rob O’Malley holds a Ph.D. in Integrative and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Southern California and a M.A. in Anthropology from the University of Alberta.  He works in the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  Follow him on twitter @Rob_O_Malley and the DoSER program @AAAS_DoSER


The Smithsonian Human Origins team has fantastic free resources for educators and others interested in human evolution, available HERE.

You can learn about upcoming The Scientists is In events and other programming at the NMNH Hall of Human Origins HERE.

The DoSER program produced a book, The Evolution Dialogues, that discusses evolution with Christian perspectives in mind.  You can email us to request a free copy of the book (we do ask for $5 to cover shipping).