What the New Yorker Found in Ohio

…ahem. It’s difficult to know what to say at this point. Those of us living in flyover country like to rant and rave about the arrogant obliviousness of big-city fancy folks. Deep down, though, we hope we’re just jealous; we hope the New Yorkers and their ilk are a lot smarter than they seem. Time and again, though, the city slickers seem to go out of their way to prove they are just as ridiculous as they first appeared. Yesterday, for example, I took to these pages to complain about science-missionary attitudes. Today it just gets worse.

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I just don’t know what to say…

Today’s non-revelation comes from Amy Harmon, the author of yesterday’s article about science-missionary James Sutter. Harmon mea-culpa’d her way through today’s article, breathlessly sharing her revelations, brag-scolding herself for the “preconceptions that had shaped my original notions.”

For example, Harmon reported that she actually liked one of the climate-change skeptics she met, even “admiring her spunk in the face of a hostile world.”

And Harmon was wowed by the fact that there was diversity—even in Ohio! Some of the students embraced climate-change science.

To Harmon and her editors, such things counted as newsworthy revelations.

I’m flummoxed and I could use some help. Am I being unfair to Harmon and her New York presumptions? Or is it depressing that the nation’s leading newspaper really considered it “news” that people had conflicting ideas about climate change? …that some climate-change skeptics had otherwise admirable personalities?

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.

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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.