Recently I was invited to appear on Midnight in the Desert, a late-night radio show hosted by Heather Wade and usually featuring topics such as UFOs, time travel, energy beings, bigfoots (bigfeet?), and more. Honestly, I was torn. One on hand, I tend to distance myself from those subjects - I'm here to communicate what we know about the universe through science, after all. And those topics are...well, less than rigorous.
On the other hand - and the reason I ultimately accepted the offer - this is a new audience. I could stay in my comfort zone and talk to the same people who accept the same worldview that I espouse, or I could take a chance and speak to people who might be unaccepting of, and perhaps even hostile to, my values.
It was a risk - personally, professionally - so I took an approach of radical empathy. At the top of the interview I said I respected the host and the listeners, and I wasn't there to tell people what to believe. The folks I spoke to had deep, sincere, heartfelt, emotional experiences. Who was I to stomp all over that?
Instead I explained why I, as a scientist, must maintain a high skeptical bar for my own beliefs, and how we could use personal experiences to explore all sorts of cool physics about the world around us and test the limits of our knowledge. Swapping stories, if you will.
Now I'm not trying to hold myself up as some paragon of science communication virtue, but I took a risk and it paid off.
The host and callers were a blast to chat with, and the show was a wonderful opportunity to share some science. At the end of the broadcast, Heather told me that I was the first scientist to come on the program and not act smug, contemptuous, and condescending towards the topics and listeners. I was disappointed to hear that, but not altogether surprised. I happily accepted her invitation for another visit in the future.
Food for thought.
Paul M. Sutter is an astrophysicist at The Ohio State University and the chief scientist at COSI science center. Sutter is also host of Ask a Spaceman and Space Radio, and leads AstroTours around the world.