Science topics that you feel compelled to discuss in polite conversation


As a scientist, I am sometimes shy to talk about what I do in social groups. I’m not a constant science communicator, although I do try to be a better one. Yes, I love my job. Yes, I am happy to talk about it. But I don’t always. Some of this is that I can have shy tendencies and can be shy to talk about myself in general. That shyness sometimes extends to talking about what I do and being a scientist is more than a job. Being a scientist is who I am and is fundamental to how I look at the world, so it can sometimes feel pretty personal. I’m not one to call attention to myself, I’m happier chatting with few people than speaking up in a big social circle. However, if the conversation steers to certain topics, I can’t help myself from putting in a few words no matter what the size of the group or how well I know them.

Of course, not surprisingly, topics that fall under my expertise make the list of ‘won’t keep mum to misinformation’. So when anyone talks about bee colonies collapsing, especially in North America, I feel it is important to talk about how honeybees are managed farm animals like cows or chickens and there are a lot of really important native pollinators (that also pollinate crops). Like Jeff Ollerton, I don’t want to only point out misinformation about pollinators, but it is so important to me that I won’t let it slide. Evolution is another one of those topics that can be touchy depending on the group but I can’t help but go there if it comes up. I also have no problem saying I am an atheist but I don’t usually volunteer this to people I don’t know. I try to keep any evolutionary discussion away from religion and on the evidence, although people who engage on this aren’t always aiming for the same. When a conversation leans towards plants, flowers, and the like, I’m always happy to share interesting stories, facts or my own research (plants are cool, people!). So in these small ways I communicate about the science I work with to the people around me.

There are also a number topics that I’m not an expert in but as a scientist I often feel the need to at least say something when it comes up: vaccines, homeopathic medicine and the like*, climate change, and others fall under this umbrella.

When asked directly by a neighbour: is climate change real? I was honest in saying that I’m not an expert myself on the science but the current consensus is yes the evidence points to climate change cause by humans. And we talked about the fact that predicting the future is tough, so there is a lot more uncertainty surrounding what will happen than what has.

In conversation this summer, I could let the ‘dangers of sunscreen’ comment basically slide** but the conspiracy theory that the cure for cancer exists but isn’t available because cancer makes so much money was something I couldn’t keep quiet about. Basically because the foundation of those conspiracies is that scientists are really ‘evil scientists’ I couldn’t help but put a real face to the stereotype. I’m not sure the person knew I was one*** but they certainly did after our conversation.

So what are those topics that push your science communication buttons? Are they always in your field of expertise? When do you have to speak up and what can you let slide?



*I touched on homeopathic medicine before when discussing teaching ecology and how these ideas can colour people’s perception of ecology.

**OK, by ‘let slide’ I mean I still had to say that I was pretty sure that the evidence for the dangers of not using sunscreen are much higher than any side-effects of using it.

***by ‘one’ of course I mean an evil scientist! ;)

8 thoughts on “Science topics that you feel compelled to discuss in polite conversation

  1. Nail on the head, Amy! My list is very similar to yours, and to be honest, it has less to do with expertise than importance. So I’m more likely to expound on climate change, vaccines, and homeopathy than I am on the evolution of plant-insect associations. I may know a lot less about C-C, V, and H; but I know enough of the science to add value in a lay-audience conversation.

    The need for accurate public education on vaccination is something I feel particularly strongly about, and so I teach a little bit of epidemiology whenever I can plausibly shoehorn it into an undergraduate course; and I’ve done radio outreach about it. It’s not just about the safety of vaccines, but also about how they work (the concept of herd immunity), so people understand that deciding not to vaccinate puts others at risk, not just their own children…

  2. Two examples from my own recent life: anti-vaxxers and LGBTQ+ issues. The first has nothing to do with my research, but drives me nuts for the same reasons Stephen has flagged above…but I actually let it slide in this particular conversation, because it was a throwaway comment in an otherwise unrelated great discussion that I had no desire to derail.

    Sexuality and the biological facts thereof is important to me both because I’m queer and because I study sexual selection for a living, gosh darnit. So when my partner’s goddaughter and her older sister (two small evangelical Protestant children briefly entrusted to my care) tried to insist to me that “boys can’t wear dresses”…well, they got more of an explanation of gender identity than their parents probably wanted, but at least I vaguely kept it appropriate for children whose ages are still in the single digits.

    Frankly, I’ve given up on climate change deniers, and, unless I think a child’s health might be in danger, I figure that homeopathic medicine can only hurt the person seeking it — live and let live, all that jazz. I’d prefer to talk science to receptive audiences than to damage both my credibility and the overall social atmosphere by picking fights.

  3. Doing research using lab animals and GMOs. The first one can be really frustrating, especially if I’m talking to someone who just doesn’t want to listen, and it’s taken me many years to not get emotional/upset when I feel that our discussion is not going anywhere. My stand on GMOs is much less involved, but when have the feeling that people are anti-GMO because they don’t actually know what it is (aka “scientist are now putting DNA in vegetables”) I make sure to do my share of myth-busting.

  4. In the 2000’s it was mostly GMOs because I was a plant biologist. Now it’s mostly climate change, vaccines, natural products, and challenges for women in science. I pick my battles carefully and only engage if I think the person is really open to having a conversation vs. an argument. I have long accepted the fact that I won’t be able to change some people’s minds with logic.

  5. The conversation vs. argument distinction is key to not wasting your time and energy. Years ago, Ira Flatow had a guest on Science Friday who had just written a book refuting the anti-vaccination arguments. A woman called in to say that she would never allow her children to be vaccinated. Ira asked her what, if anything, could change her mind. She said, “Nothing. My mind is made up.” Ira said “Then we really don’t have much to talk about.” and hung up. I listen to his show a lot, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard him cut a caller off quite like that.

  6. And for those conversations – I highly recommend Sam Horn’s book, “Do I Have Your Attention Yet?” Don’t be put off by her examples (which are mostly about people pitching products to potential investors or customers). She’s an expert on effective communication, and the approaches she has worked out are really effective when talking science to non-scientists.

  7. I think it’s important to remind people who scientists are — a lot of these conspiracies rely on evil scientists out to hoodwink the public for personal gain, or the benefit of their overlords. When people talk about a climate change conspiracy, I like to remind them that scientists love nothing more than to prove each other wrong, and that any scientist would love to reliably disprove global warming (think of the citations!). Giving people that little window into how science works, from a scientist who (I hope) doesn’t seem evil, seems to help. It personalizes a boogeyman.

  8. I suspect many of us scientists relate quite well to your post. Even if we’re not experts on a particular topic we have honed our BS detectors! For me, it’s agriculture and plant biotechnology since I work in that area. The rise of Food Babes and Dr. Ozs, and the reliance on celebrity opinion really get me going. Used to be evolution, and still is occasionally.

Leave a Reply