(11:53)The Power of Culture
“What we have is a people issue” sounds like planet Earth’s mechanic explaining what’s making all that racket. It’s us. We’re the problem. (sigh) Again. Because while we absolutely can improve our ability to interpret, interrogate and understand raw data - there are still bigger forces at play. Another reason facts and data have a hard time changing our beliefs? That’s not how they’re formed in the first place.
In their book, the Knowledge Illusion, authors Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach argue that our beliefs are forged through powerful cultural and contextual factors that make them nearly impossible to change.
With that in mind, we’d like to go on record here at Working Better, to not shy from taking a stance on a controversial topic, with a bold belief of our own. And though we may lose a few subscribers and sponsors so be it. (clear throat): The Earth is round. There I said it.
When we’re talking about how groupthink can beat well established facts, the flat earth movement is a topic that’s hard to avoid. Even the most conservative estimates measure the growing number of “flat earthers” in the millions, just in the US alone. There’s lots of ways to explain the phenomenon, but undoubtedly one is that people discover a sense of community. They attend conferences and gatherings around the world, they forge friendships, and find identity and meaning in the movement, in the pursuit of what they believe is the truth...and that becomes strong armor against any evidence that says otherwise.
Here’s a clip from a National Geographic Documentary from 2019:
“Your belief in the earth being flat flies in the face of hundreds of years of scientific evidence that the world is round. But not only that - we have satellite imagery, photos from space that prove that the earth is round…."
“Right and nobody here believes any of that anymore.” (Nat Geo)
We ALL can be guilty of this type of thinking in one way or another. We instinctively ignore or discredit data that threatens a part of our identity. A chef is much more likely than an average person to be skeptical over pizza-making robots. It’s not that Blockbuster didn’t have data indicating more and more people were consuming media online and ditching their DVDs...the facts threatened the core of who they were, so they were effectively ignored.
Someone wiser than I once said, “It’s hard to get someone to understand something when their salary depends on them not understanding it.”
(14:38) Interview with Jeremy Hoffman
With that in mind, I’m thrilled to be joined by someone whose job DOES depend on them understanding data. Dr. Jeremy Hoffman is the Chief Scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia and a professor at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Jeremy specializes in Earth science communication, data-driven and community based participatory science, and science center exhibit content development. He’s been highlighted in the Grist50 and has been written about in publications like the New York Times, NPR, STEM jobs Magazine, UPWORTHY, and yes folks, the Working Better podcast. Jeremy talked with us back in Episode 5 about how cities are affected by climate change. We’re thrilled to have him back to talk about data and the importance of science-based education
Can you tell us a little bit about what you've been working on at the science museum?
The Science Museum of Virginia likes to think of itself as the marketing agency for science. Everything that we're doing these days is trying to center the experience around COVID-19 and the ongoing pandemic. From last year, focusing on the most breaking science, most reliable science we could share about things from masking to the change from surface... Focusing on cleansing surfaces to maintaining distance and wearing a mask. And then now it's shifted into reinforcing the safety and reliability of vaccines to alleviate ongoing pandemics. So that's kind of been coloring the whole background of work these days.
The science museum is dedicated to communicating climate change and its impacts on the Commonwealth of Virginia for the last several years. Working on explaining how something as big and seemingly far away in space and time as climate change is in our backyards. How does something so seemingly so far away in space and time impact me in my day-to-day life? And then finally, just broad brush, we're trying to integrate real-world science all the time into every aspect of the institution, from our exhibits to our social media content, to our external communications. So it really is a job that allows me to live, breathe, and explain science throughout the week and the years.
I think that as a consumer of that data, that information coming from the scientists that is either frustrating or hard, is that the research is happening in real time. Right? The message keeps changing. And how do you decide how to collate that information in such a way that you're not seeming to spin 180 every other day?
The best and most clearest example of how reliable scientific information has needed to be updated as we discovered new things was our experience at the beginning of the pandemic to where we are now. And what do I mean by that? Originally it was continue to wash your hands religiously between every single touch of any surface. Which is good practice, that's good public health practice to begin with. But then things like making sure that you're cleaning every single surface. It's become clear through laboratory experiments and observations and studies based on how COVID-19 spreads among people is that that's not a really viable way to catch COVID-19. It's much more about avoiding cramped, crowded, and poorly ventilated spaces.
Can you talk about some examples that you can give where you feel like you've been successful in taking something which could be maybe hard to grasp and making it really more impactful to people?
What we started to do in my early times as a science communicator was trying to figure out how we get people to remember the simple things around risk mitigation should an earthquake exist or happen?We started doing flash mobs around earthquake science communication, and we called it flashmob science because what we would do is recruit a large group of people to pretend as though an earthquake was going on.
What do you feel, you think changing data literacy or science literacy could help maybe people understand better the severity or the urgency behind climate change?
I think that data can be very, very strong for particular people. Whereas on that other side of the spectrum where people's values don't align with the sorts of things that need to happen in order to address the climate crisis, data doesn't matter anymore.
It's taken the climate science communication field a long time to start to recognize that it truly is about connecting with communities through trusted voices. Who are you hearing about this information from? Is it someone that looks like you? Is it someone that engages in the same activities as you? I imagine someone like a sports caster or something on Monday Night Football talking about the heat exhaustion that players of the future might encounter because of climate change. That might turn some heads. As well as something like doctors having conversations with their patients about how a certain climate stresser disproportionately affects them because of where they live in a city. I think that those are the sorts of trusted voices, both in public eye as well as professional life that can be having these conversations and helping to move the needle on public awareness of the climate change impacts that will affect them in their day-to-day lives. Without that it truly is in large part just kind of extra data until you start to connect it to someone's backyard or their front porch.
Do you feel like, as a scientist, that's made you more aware of your own biases or able to sort of realize, at least in retrospect, that you may have perhaps brought a bias to the table?
I certainly think that understanding your own personal biases is a very introspective piece of work and scientists are not trained any differently than the rest of us in how to be introspective. The scientific mind frame provides you with is the ability to understand progress. And again, that changing information through time, being comfortable with changing your worldview based on that kind of new data being incorporated into your understanding. It's also being experimental and figuring out what works and what doesn't under certain situations. And how do I start to incorporate this information into my day-to-day life? So while I don't think scientists are any more prepared to investigate their own biases than others, I do think that we bring, and we have a certain training in incorporating that information into our day to day lives to produce a more positive outcome.
Of course everyone has blind spots, things that even if we do as much introspection as possible, we're never going to uncover them without conversations with others and seeking out opinions and understandings of the world that are different from ours. So introspection is the first step and then being able to hear and listen to other's experiences and how that relates to your own understanding of the world is also as important as doing the own introspection to identify your own biases.
Is there anything else you want to add before we go?
As of April, 2020, the FDA lists 85 different vaccines that are licensed for use in the United States for various diseases. Doctors currently recommend 16 of these by your 18th birthday. And to put that into perspective, there are 237 vaccines that are in some level of development for COVID-19 alone, according to the World Health Organization. And I think that that kind of scaling, it really identifies the magnitude of the scientific endeavor that's going into identifying safe and effective vaccines for this illness.