First let me ask, how do you feel about the latest Star Wars movie? Once you are able to slow your breathing and unclench your fists enough to scroll, we can go on. Now let me ask a different question: Why do people tasked with communicating science so often assume that exposure to the same information will result in uniform reactions and understanding across audiences? If we can’t watch the same movie or read the same book without having wildly different reactions, why would we assume that somehow science exists in a special vacuum where none of our personal experiences or past knowledge will affect how we process information?
And while pieces of pop culture and scientific research are fundamentally different in how they come into being, the skills people use to process them likely come from the same place. Why you disagree might be different, but how you disagree? This is where hours of debating the latest comic-book adaptation or the merit of various Star Trek seasons may be time better spent than you think.
Think back to the most frustrating conversations you have had. While there may be nuances in the realm of talking to a brick wall, many of my own frustrations can be traced back to the feeling of arguing with – or being treated like – a child. And when we are interacting with kids (who, by the way, probably get frustrated by these same things) we have the chance to develop their conversational skills beyond the elementary playground. Two common examples of conversational practices that extend frustratingly far past the monkey bars include “because I said so” and “only a loser would think that.”
“Because I said so.”
When adults are dealing with kids, this phrase can be a go-to for ending a conversation. That’s its goal. Yes, there are instances for safety when such authority is necessary. But use of this phrase sends a very particular message: You don’t have the right to ask why. And any adult who has had their reasoning cut off by “because I am your manager” or “that’s just the way things are” knows how frustrating having their right to an opinion taken away can be.
But experiencing frustration is just one of the side effects. When you are repeatedly expected to simply swallow your arguments when the other person says “because,” you might internalize the belief that you don’t have the right to ask questions at all. And even if you do survive such a barrage of shut-downs without losing your will to pose questions, you will end up being denied the chance to learn and practice the powerful skills of asking and answering meaningful questions.
Imagine again that you have asked someone why they didn’t like a movie, and that they have answered with, “Because I just didn’t.” Unhelpful. But being able to follow up with, “Were you frustrated with the characters or specific points in the plot?” or “How would you have changed the ending, and why do you think that would have been better?” might open doors to the reasons behind their opinions. Giving people the chance to ask and answer good questions might force them (or you) to articulate points that you hadn’t previously articulated even internally. If you wouldn’t accept “because I said so” as an answer, ask a better question or articulate a better answer when you hear some variation of that line.
It may be that you disagreed with the decision a character made or felt that watching people make poor decisions made a movie less fun. But figuring out those answers reveals the assumptions that you have made about a given character’s frame of mind or about how fun a particular movie has the obligation to be. Any of that is more meaningful than “I just didn’t like it.” And getting the chance to practice digging down to your assumptions on things that don’t really matter that much is a great way to be more willing or able to ask better questions about the things that do matter.
A recent discussion I had with some relatives about entitlement programs ended up boiling down to this divide: One side would rather have programs that reach anyone who might need them – even at the risk of being exploited by some people who don’t, and the other side would prefer to have programs that could not possibly be exploited by anyone who didn’t actually need them – even if it meant that some people who really needed them were left out. With that kind of impasse at the core, any of the more trivial disagreements were just window dressing. Opening the door to asking and answering meaningful questions doesn’t mean that you will end up agreeing, but it means that the important reasons why you disagree might become clear. And that opens an important window for discussing scientific concepts that might be difficult or unpleasant to process.
“Only a loser would think that.”
This conversational wall takes many forms and comes down to linguistic dismissal and intimidation. Neither has anything to do with evidence. The world of online trolls attacking women provides horrifying examples of what this looks like in adult life. More subtly, there is the difference between “I don’t enjoy running, “running is stupid,” or even “people who run must be masochists.”
Let’s go back to Star Wars. My extremely geeky group of friends have even devolved into “I don’t know if I can be friends with anyone who compares Last Jedi and Empire” and “All of the people I know who hated it are just whiners who didn’t like that the macho boys making manly and impulsive decisions led to bad things instead of saving the day.” (Names have been left off to preserve the future dignity of these individuals). Again, these kinds of responses cut off the conversation. They tell the other person that they don’t have the right to their opinion, or that they have to accept a derogatory label if they want to keep defending it.
If we want young people to engage with scientific information – even in the face of strong cultural counterpressures – they need practice and tools. Giving up when someone insults you or your thoughts about Dungeons and Dragons or whether to preserve or break down completed LEGO sets denies an important opportunity for practice. Yes, this kind of disagreement takes time, and time can seem feel like a scarce resource when interacting with kids. But if they can’t learn to disagree tactfully about LEGO, when will they?
Consider two of my old college friends: One is a deeply religious and long-practicing Catholic conservative and the other is a proud progressive and LGBTQ advocate with a science PhD. Their online conversations are a marvel of mutual respect and restraint. They fully read the articles that they send to each other and they pull out quotes or cite studies to support their arguments. They explain the cultural history and significance behind certain beliefs, as well as the psychological effects of particular practices. They may not come away with consensus – in fact, they seldom do – but they come away with a mutual understanding behind the roots of their stances. They have also had practice disagreeing about various gaming disputes since the start of their college careers.
So while it may seem tempting to write off the various passions that young people might have – dinosaurs, Minecraft, Frozen, horses, or even Star Wars – those passions can provide an opportunity to practice crafting good questions when people disagree. And hopefully they will take those skills and – as they get older – not only feel empowered to ask questions, but have the skills to do so in a productive and meaningful manner.