Put your hand up if this has happened to you:
You are on social media and you see a topic on your scientific subject that is filled with inaccuracies. You decide to correct a fact and/or offer up an objective question hoping that the person who posted sees the light. Instead what you get is a barrage of aggressive comments. Shocked and not knowing how to respond, you too may descend into emotional outbursts which just worsens the situation. This has happened to me a fair amount and while it may be quite common on social media it can also occur face to face.
Over the past or so I have developed my own golden rules for engaging with others; rules that have got me out of many close calls! While some of them are just plain old simple common sense, there are others I have tried and tested myself, and I can firmly say were successful! So read on for my personal tips and tricks!
Disclaimer: I cannot be held responsible for the words and actions of others should you wish to employ these methods. These are my views and should you wish to try them out I cannot be held responsible for the consequences.
1- Don’t be rude, patronise or be dismissive
I’m pretty sure everyone already knows this, but as the first and most important rule of all you need to make sure you stick to it! Try not to stoop to their level otherwise you are simply stoking the fires of the argument and anything you say will not be heard simply because they have become defensive and emotional. As it turns out defensive reactions are a perfectly natural response that happens to everyone and can be explained scientifically:
A trigger is recognised by the thalamus in the brain and usually is sent to the cortical centres (the slow and thinking part) to enable analyses. However the signal from an emotional trigger by-passes the cortical centres and is sent to the amygdala which stores the emotions. This by-passing of the cortical centres means we react emotionally. This is known as emotional hijacking. However developing emotional intelligence can re-train your brain to recognise this stimulus and can slow you down from reacting to it (Goldman, 1995). I’m not saying it can be stopped completely, but we can certainly train ourselves. By recognising that this occurs and is a perfectly normal response means we can give the other person time and space to feel however they want to for however long they need. Once a suitable time has passed and the emotions have run their course, it is time to move on.
2- Don’t bring the ego into it
This is the point where you start to give the true hard scientific facts… and remember this is what this debate is about. Whatever you do, don’t start saying that you have *this* many qualifications complete with “… so I know what I’m talking about.” This might be interpreted as patronising. Your qualifications are not at debate here even if that is how you know so much. If you want to inform the other person that you do have qualifications to let them know you do know what you are talking about, do it in passive way, such as: “They (insert institute of choice) actually published this paper that says…which just so happens to be where I did my (insert qualification).”
3- Provide them with a valued source of information that emphasises your point BUT has to be accessible to them i.e. not via a paywall, is not a long read and is written by a reputable institute or author.
I like doing this because it further emphasises point 2 above; that it is about facts and you are not bringing egos into it. By making sure it can be read, this provides the other person with something to read in their own time, giving them time and space to relax into it. It also removes the focus away from their argument with you towards the article instead because they can’t exactly argue with the author of the article (which involves looking up the author and contact details, and getting in touch). If the article is by a reputable institute or author, then bring attention to it. I like to use the resources from Sense about Science as they cover many topics, especially controversial ones. They provide nice bitesize information and write in a clear formal and respectful manner.
4- Understand that scientific values are not the only values and acknowledge that
Facts and objective truths are great, but they are not the only thing of value in this world. Emotions, religion, creative art and perspective are subjective but have extremely high value as they colour our world with diversity. Does this mean that objectivity should trump subjectivity? An article in the New Scientist weighs this argument up in A rational nation ruled by science would be a terrible idea. As you can see from the title the answer is NO and I would have to agree as I’m sure many others would as well. When I started learning a bit about science policy the first thing I learnt was that hard core scientific facts are not the only things that need considering (Science Policy: First Lessons on a Journey), other values are just as important. It is therefore essential that you don’t dismiss or patronise their emotions or values. Acknowledge them. Instead ask them to differentiate the objectivity and subjectivity embedded within their argument. Of course by doing this you will probably go deeper into a discussion which can be draining both emotionally and time-wise particularly on social media so pick the point carefully should you wish to do this.
5- Listen! And try to understand
This one should come as no surprise really. The only way to make the other person understand your viewpoint is if you practise what you preach. I’ve found the best way to show you understand what they are saying is to reiterate it e.g. “So what you are trying to say is….”
6- Watch your tone and how you write
I once read somewhere that when it comes to social media when you think you are writing in a neutral manner it will probably come across as rude or negative to the reader. So watch your tone carefully. If something can be interpreted negatively, it probably will! Also remember the importance of smiley faces as pedantic as that sounds. Sugar your comments up and go overboard in being Pollyanna even if you are not in the mood to do so. I have found that this is the only way to ensure that your comment will not be taking negatively.
7- Know when to bail
When all else fails or maybe there is a troll that is trying to provoke you, or simply because you don’t have the time, leave the discussion. Usually the best way to make your point without too much effort is to do number 3 (provide a source of information) because with that you get the facts across, you give them more information to look into it on their own without being rude. If you can, unfollow a thread because that will reduce further provocations.
Ultimately to have a dialogue with the public, we as scientists need to stop seeing the public as vacuous and ill-informed. We need to be able to respect them if we want them to respect science. A good relationship starts with how we deal with them. I leave you with a quote from Tracey Brown (Director of Sense about Science) from her talk The Annual Sense About Science Lecture 2015 The Ugly Truth:
“How can you get the public to trust you when you don’t trust them?”