Science Missionary Flounders in Ohio Public School

It’s difficult to believe that smart, educated, well-dressed people still haven’t gotten the message, but apparently…they haven’t. It has just happened again: A well-intentioned science missionary has blundered into hostile territory. He was flummoxed when angry locals didn’t immediately embrace his message. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: If you really want to teach real science to creationists or climate-change deniers, you need to take a different approach.

Here are the details from the most recent episode: The New York Times carried the story of a smart and credentialed science expert who deigned to enter Trump territory to teach climate change. Some students balked. The teacher wasn’t prepared for such hostility. He doubled down in his attempt to help denialists see the light. Some did, but others turned implacably against him and his climate-change message.


Why won’t you agree I’m right…?

Let me be crystal-clear from the outset. I agree wholeheartedly that we need to do a better job of spreading the word about real science. I am dismayed by Trump’s anti-intellectual climate-change denialism. I cheer and support all efforts to teach good science.

But I can’t understand how so many of my allies still suffer from the “missionary supposition.” Like the science teacher in this story, they think that the obvious truth of climate change (or evolution) is enough to convince everyone they meet. Even worse, as in this case, some science missionaries approach their mission fields with a lamentable arrogance. Students in this story didn’t like the way the teacher kept reminding them that he was doing them a big favor; telling them that he had given up higher-paying jobs to come help them. One particularly hostile student fled from the class, complaining that the message was only that she was “wrong and stupid.”

What should the teacher have done instead? Happily, the NYT called ILYBYGTH science-communication guru Dan Kahan. And Professor Kahan told them the obvious truth: Denying science is not about knowledge, it is about identity. When the people in this particular science class responded angrily to the science missionary, it was because they felt attacked, insulted, and condescended to.

Whether you’re Bill Nye, Richard Dawkins, or a classroom science teacher, the lessons have been clear for a long, long time. If we really want people to know and understand climate-change science or evolution, we need to ditch our missionary suppositions. We need to get rid of our assumption that people who don’t agree with us are simply ignorant. Or evil.

Like any teacher worth his or her salt, our first goal should be to get to know our students, to connect with them as people, not to treat them as sadly deficient ignoramuses. If and only if we do that can we ever hope to be trusted enough to talk about sensitive ideological issues.

I’ll say it again: Nothing in this prescription includes watering down science to flatter hostiles. Never would I suggest we skirt controversy in order to keep everyone happy. Rather, the smart play is to recognize our own blundering missionary history. Instead of plunking down in hostile territory and assuming that locals will rush to embrace our message, we need to take time to understand why people distrust us.

Leave a comment


  1. Dan

     /  June 5, 2017

    They don’t trust you because they are ignorant, indoctrinated with hostile, insurrectionistic ideologies, and they are often clustered in sufficient numbers that they don’t feel much pressure to assimilate to the cultural mainstream anymore. They’re moving the mainstream downstream to their swamp instead. A message of tolerance and gentle persuasion is going to be lost on them too, because you are a “secular liberal” who offers a godless world of relative values, a void of meaning and purpose, and not much fighting spirit to face a world of enemies and limited resources. It might help more at this point to let them have their fake science and try to reduce their unhinged hatred of demonized Muslims, immigrants, and long-established citizens of the wrong color who aren’t rich. Those of us who grew up in the lies and abuse of these cultures, who spent most of our lives in and around forms of fundagelicalism all spreading conflict and division, we have one message for you: appeasement is the path to their assimilation of you.

  2. William Bell

     /  June 5, 2017

    Here here, I have to agree with your analysis, he did seem like he was missing the reality of the situation from the article you pointed out. He sounds exactly like the sort of elite that Republicans use to tarnish climate science.

    • Dan

       /  June 5, 2017

      I’ve seen PhDed native sons of the religious right living and teaching in their home cultures try to teach things like climate change, evolution, historical-critical interpretation, scary modernist and postmodernist thinkers, or do years of empirical research on the water and soil system impact of planting corn on corn on corn with heavy doses of fertilizer. Same violent, hostile reactions. I’ve watched relatives and people in their circle stay this way or get worse in it since the 70s. We’re talking about 100-150 years of resistance to these subjects by fundamentalists; it’s not a new thing, and it’s not an outside message that has to be imported.

      • William Bell

         /  June 5, 2017

        You’re currently feeding into their persecution complex so hard. The solution isn’t to demonize people.

      • Dan

         /  June 5, 2017

        There is NOTHING demonizing in my comments. I personalized and humanized people I am describing as friends and relatives who are at each others throats often over this stuff. The religioius right is as it is because they’ve thrown their own under the bus so much and for so long. The demonizing is pretty one sided. Why are you so sure you’re not like a cold war Trotskyite trying to see the bright side that’s really an alternate history that didn’t happen and never will happen?

  3. Dan

     /  June 5, 2017

    Why is it so hard to accept the point Karl Rove made to Ron Suskind? That guys like Suskind, a Pulitzer-winning journalist, are “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” (“Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” The New York Times Magazine, 17 Oct. 2004.)

    You want to think they will play chess with you if you are nice, but they are not playing chess. They are knocking your pieces on the floor every time you set up.

  4. Anecdotal observations follow, but “missionary” feels entirely like the correct description. Despite a hundred years of contrary science, most contemporary physicists I’ve encountered, if given enough time to chatter, will assert the universe is mechanically deterministic in it’s operation. Many will let slip their conviction that the only path to understanding how everything works is science. Mechanical understanding is then falsely equated with meaning. The most off putting elements of Calvinism do not taste any better mixed with science than they did mixed with Jesus.

    Missionary science and literalist religion seem in vogue these days.

    • Dan

       /  June 8, 2017

      So in your generalized anecdotal opinion, “most physicists” have abandoned uncertainty and are crypto-Calvinists of the 16th-century sort, like Calvin himself who saw astrology (then understood as a science), as a predictive system based on a mechanistic, deterministic universe?

      I also doubt many contemporary scientists will say all arts and “human sciences” can be reduced to math or even a governing theory; there is an abiding hostility or skepticism toward psychology, sociology, etc. when data and empirically grounded methods are not used within a falsifiable paradigm. And this is bad, why? Because it eliminates mysticism from the options?

      If you are complaining that “science” should have no “religious” influences in its model of reality, note that any comprehensive claim about the structure of reality and the limits of the knowable is doing what religion does; science is the same type of thing in that respect , that religion is, partly because the one gave rise to the other and have a common origin in philosophical, theoretical thought going back to the Greeks.

      Calvinism and early science were both products of nominalism, and a common sense assumption that if spirits exist, they exist in the same way as trees, dogs, and metals. When data on spirits did not emerge, they were increasingly abandoned and relegated to the margins of acceptable thought. But once the frame shifted from Newton’s closed universe of absolute space to a relative one where “it is from bit” (everything is energy, and energy is information) the door to the far out and unexpected was kicked back open.

      You may have a point that a certain premodern arrogance or mechanical reductionism has persisted in the assumption that western science can and will eventually provide a comprehensive account of reality. When a few contrarians suggest there probably are things that are simply beyond human cognition they are labelled “the new mysterians” — mystics and mystifiers of science, a threat to scientific orthodoxy like the “new atheists” relative to religion.

  5. Jared

     /  August 8, 2017

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I’m a dedicated Christian leader, but for my career I’m a Park Ranger – and it is always disheartening to see how many Christians decry science, deny science change, entrench against evolution, stand against conservation, etc.
    You pinpoint it correctly, I believe, that it is an issue of identity and not knowledge. When people wrap their identity up in ideologies they often won’t be open to looking at evidence.

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