Image credit: United States Air Force, via Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: United States Air Force, via Wikimedia Commons

By now I've done enough events that I pretty much assume for a typical audience size and a typical event length that I will say at least one statement that at least one person disagrees with. As I frequently get questions about the Big Bang or flat Earth or aliens or climate change, it's usually more than one statement offending more than one person.

Of course it's never my intention. I try to simply communicate what we know about our world through the lens of the scientific method and how we know that (i.e. the scientific method itself as applied beyond simple classroom examples, which is the subject of another piece). But in the course of any discussion eventually a single sentence or even an entire topic suddenly becomes a contentious issue.

This is a good thing. A very good thing.

Imagine a world where everybody was fully comfortable with the scientific viewpoint and readily accepted the latest research without question. Well for one, anyone who served as a facilitator of science would be out of a job, because the general public could facilitate themselves. And for two, that world would be a very scary place.

The successful application of the scientific method itself requires constant criticism and argumentation to refine and update our knowledge of the world. Without scientists questioning each other, we wouldn't progress at all. So if we're to incubate within the general public a healthy skeptical attitude, we should expect and encourage a similar level of rigorous interrogation.

I'm not saying that people can't take it too far (they do) and that skepticism can't turn unhealthy (it can) but every disbelieving question is an amazing opportunity. What a gift we now have to open dialogues and dig deeper into subjects, to make sure that everything we're saying is backed up by mountains of evidence and years of scientific toil - and that we're capable of explaining it. We may not change minds in that moment but that's not necessarily the goal.

I think that being prepared for disagreement, and even being willing to be provocative to create disagreement, makes us better science communicators and makes science better understood in society.

But feel free to disagree.


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