Science Talk Q&A (part V): Science and Identity Politics

Identity politics has permeated vaccine hesitancy, opinions on climate change, and society’s response to the COVID-19 virus. We are living in a moment in history where identity politics is playing its most prominent role in scientific conversations.  

Science Talk’s Dr. Allison Coffin and Dr. Kiki Sanford sat down with Jessica McNellis from s2s Public Relations and Communications to discuss how a person’s political party can influence his or her scientific beliefs. ​

Science and politics have always been closely intertwined. What are the biggest challenges communicating science in a polarizing political environment?

Dr. Allison Coffin: The biggest challenge is not starting with a common set of facts. I think conversations about values and what to do with a set of facts are meaningful conversations. You can look at changes in global temperature or changes in sea level and say, these things are happening. We have to then ask: do we want to look at short term business interest versus long term environmental conservation, understanding there could be negative repercussions on many businesses short term? These are value conversations, and they are important. Where we lose value is when there is disregard for the facts at the core of these conversations. Without agreeing on that common set of facts – whether that be the climate is warming, or the pandemic is real and COVID is killing people – it’s very challenging to have a respectful conversation about what to do.

Dr. Kiki Sanford: Another challenge is the active spread of disinformation for political or personal gain. It’s very difficult to counter disinformation because it often appeals to emotion or personal identity, and is accepted without the need for a factual basis. And, very often it starts with something that at its root is true, which is then spun into a different interpretation and tied to non-truths to fit a specific agenda. Because there is a tiny kernel of truth at the root of the argument, it makes it harder to dispute. For many people, their identity is closely tied to their political views and that drives how they view the world, who they listen to, and what they read. If scientific facts don’t line up with their political beliefs, motivated reasoning and cognitive bias allow the mental gymnastics to keep that identity in place. While science and politics are often conflicting forces, I do believe the two should work hand in hand and scientific knowledge should inform political decisions. Certainly not make political decisions, but inform them. Science is a political endeavor. Asking questions, gaining new knowledge, and changing the status quo is what pushes our society forward. 

How are the conversations around identity politics and science different now than at other moments in history? 

KS: We are living in a moment in history where the tie between identity politics and scientific beliefs is being closely studied. We are more aware of where there are conflicts. There have been other scientific conversations, like climate change and HIV, where identity politics has played a role, but never on the same scale that we’ve seen in the past few years. Changes in media ownership, availability, and consumption patterns have driven a lot of the changes. People are only seeking information from sources that support their identities and this siloing allows those individuals to be more easily manipulated on a much larger scale. My hope is that we can learn about what drives identity conflicts and use that knowledge to separate scientific beliefs from political beliefs.

AC: We’re also seeing a shift in the messaging around some of the core conversations associated with identity politics. For example, the profile of a typical anti-vaxxer has changed from what it was a decade ago. Even five years ago, the stereotypical anti-vaxxer profile might be described as an upper middle class, white suburban mom who believes children should have normal childhood ailments and adopts a more holistic health approach. Today’s anti-COVID vaccination profile is vastly different and is much more associated with political party affiliations and conspiracy theories, versus the original sentiment that was anti-big pharma.

We are seeing a similar shift in messaging around climate change as well. It is now being framed as a public health crisis instead of strictly an environmental concern, which would traditionally tie more exclusivity to one political party over the other. Public health often garners broader support.

When someone challenges science, like say your uncle at the holidays, how do you rebut that?  

AC: There might be an initial instinct to avoid engaging in these conversations to sidestep conflict. However, one of the many places we have seen science communications matter this year is scientists having conversations with people already in their close circles. It is not just the blogs and the opinion pieces and the media, which are huge, but direct conversations with those you have personal relationships with who might be skeptical about what they’re hearing and who might be more comfortable considering information that challenges their worldview if it’s coming from someone who they already have a relationship with. Trust in the messenger plays a big role in a person’s trust in the information.

KS: It’s important to think about what not to do as well. You don’t want to be combative. Try to overcome your inner impulses to challenge a person’s belief immediately and instead ask questions. Don’t say anything about how you feel or what you think until you’ve learned more about where that idea came from, why it is something they are sharing, and why they agree with it. When you start asking questions, you can figure out how to make connections and find common ground to start introducing new ideas. So often when we hear about vaccine hesitancy, it’s coming from a place of concern for a person’s own health or the health of their children. It is much easier to start from that shared concern about your or your child’s health to open that discussion. 

At the end of the day, understand that even if you communicate your points perfectly, people might still make other choices, even if they know better and understand it is not the best for their health or those around them. We are all human.

This is the fifth Science Talk Q&A in the series. The other Q&As can be found on the Science Talk blog.

Science Talk is a non-profit organization bringing together individuals passionate about science to share ideas about how science should be best communicated. Each year, Science Talk hosts a conference where scientists, journalists, celebrities, politicians, students, and anyone who loves science can convene and share their expertise through workshops and presentations on how to better communicate science to…”everyone.”

Read the original conversation published on Science Talk’s blog: here.

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