Ten science talk tips for the holidays

by Gaia Cantelli, PhD

Credit: Dennis Crowley, used via Creative Commons licence
The holidays are upon us, with people everywhere beginning their annual migrations to be with family for a few days of eating, drinking, exchanging presents and catching up. However, most people will also have relatives whose views are radically different from theirs – and seem to bring them up at the most embarrassing time possible. If you are a scientist yourself, or simply a science enthusiast, one of the most challenging breeds of embarrassing relative is undoubtedly the science-denier. You want to help them, while at the same time you probably don't want to argue under the Christmas tree. Here are some of my best-tested top-tips for dealing with your festive nightmare.

1. Don't be aggressive 

The trouble with living in times of such highly polarized debate is that everyone's sensibilities have become more fragile. People dislike feeling attacked and will retreat in full-on defence mode, which usually does not include any space for listening or changing their minds. So even though you might feel the irresistible urge to slam your fist on the table in frustration, take the high road and make a conscious effort to come across as peaceful and non-confrontational as possible. It may be that you’re the one who feels attacked first – even then, it’s important to literally take a deep breath, pause, smile, and calm things down. An interesting finding of contemporary psychology is that people hate being wrong so much so that they will ignore evidence that is literally flooding their doorstep. Turning a conversation into a confrontation means people are even less likely to listen to you and to change their mind. 

2. Look up some facts and figures beforehand

Being a scientist or science enthusiast does not mean you are prepared to debate any topic in depth at any given time. If you know there is a particular hot-button issue that is likely to come up - vaccinations, evolution, climate change, whatever - make sure you take the time to do a little bit of reading beforehand. Use that long journey home as a chance to look up some key stats and figures that could be really informative while you're discussing these things with your family. Coming across as mild-mannered but extremely well-read is more likely to convince people you know what you-re talking about! What's more, your more confrontational relatives can feel free to fact-check you and will be pleased to know you are up to snuff with the latest developments. Don't worry too much about the technical details though - you certainly do not need to be a scientist to be an effective advocate for science around the kitchen table!

3. Ask questions

Around 350 BC, a very famous philosopher called Socrates invented a method of debate. He asking questions that led the person he was talking to see their errors ways by themselves. Socrates was really onto something - people are much more likely to stick to a conclusion they have reached themselves as opposed to something they have been lectured on by a distant relative. Most people experience at least a little bit of cognitive dissonance when it comes to science. We may believe in the healing power of prayer but still go to the doctor. We may think that all of medical science is a bit of a scam, but still vaccinate our toddler just in case. Realizing these contrasting aspects of our lives through questions is the best way to change minds slowly, and for good.

Credit: NASA Johnson
4. Humanize scientists

Anti-science attitudes sometimes arise when people have never met a scientist in their lives. They probably think of The Big Bang Theory’s adorable man-children, real-life screwups with big brains and little sense – but all kinds of people are scientists. If you are a scientist yourself or know people who are, a useful conversation is discussing what doing science is really like. Talking about daily research life and findings can show that science is more than a collection of newspaper headlines - it's a livelihood!

5. Give them a way out

While it's hard to not contradict someone who is painfully wrong, it is really important to try and not challenge the core beliefs of your anti-science relatives and friends. This will only make them defensive and stop them from listening. Instead, try to add new ideas and concepts to the table and, if possible, give them a way out - some form of mental gymnastics through which they may retain their original core beliefs but also accept whatever new information you are sharing. For example, if your extremely religious relatives do not believe in evolution and you are an atheist, telling them that God doesn't exist is not going to get them to listen to you. Instead, present them with some key statistics about evolution and bring up the fact that there are a lot of very religious people who both believe in God and in the science of evolution, and who in fact believe that God acted through evolution to create the world. If your naturopath uncle doesn't want to vaccinate his children, don't tell him that the profession he has dedicated his life to is a scam! Instead, talk about why vaccines are both safe and effective and then point out that most people who use natural remedies also take at least some core elements of modern medicine on board.

6. Don't shy away from discussion

If you really don't want any drama over the holidays, it is tempting to just ignore all of the anti-scientific nonsense you are bound to hear over the holidays. So what if Auntie Flo thinks that fossils were planted by the devil? And frankly, if grandpa wants to heal his gout with crystals, let him. If you are reading this, at least part of you knows that you really should at least try to challenge people's views on important topics. After all, you love your grandpa and you want him to get better. And Auntie Flo probably votes. Keep tip 1 in mind and try to be as non-confrontational as possible while saying something. Making sure that there are two sides to the debate might actually influence the rest of your family in ways you cannot imagine. Younger family members might be excited to discover that there are alternatives to what their parents believe. Older family members who are quietly on the fence about the subject might listen to your conversation and change their minds, even if the person you are actually talking with doesn't.

Credit: Philip Bond, used via Creative Commons licence
7. Have fun!

The holidays are supposed to be fun! Keep that in mind and make sure things don't get too dark at inopportune times. Talking about children dying of measles might not be one for Christmas morning while the kids are opening their presents. And anything to do with tumors, guts and surgery needs to wait until you're done eating, especially if you're going to show pictures of your biological research! While these things are very serious, it's OK to try and keep the debate light and joke around a bit. In fact, it's essential to make sure people aren't uncomfortable, upset or bored, all of which are the hallmarks of a very disengaged audience!

8. Follow up on conversations 

While a five-minute exchange while you're watching It's a wonderful life might not have worked to change anyone's mind, it might well have planted a seed. Make sure you keep watering that seed after the holidays are over! Forward fun science articles to your relatives, whether it's pictures from the Hubble probe or cool new research you've run into online. Try to keep these conversations going year after year as you see your family over the holidays - Easter and summer visits count, too – and you are going to make a bigger impact than you think!

9. Buy presents with a little bit of an agenda 

Whether it’s a science kit for the young children of your anti-science uncle or a book on space for your flat-earther cousin, it’s perfectly OK to buy gifts that have a little bit of an agenda. What better seed to plant than a gift your relatives can take home and look at every day? Of course, you know your family best so you know where the boundaries are. In gift giving as much as in conversation, being overly provocative is not the most productive attitude. While gifting The God Delusion to your very religious grandma might not achieve anything other than upsetting the old gal, Why Evolution Is True might be perfect for your cousins who go to church but also wear hotpants – especially if you make a joke of it. “I know we disagree on this, but I’ve read this really great book and would love to hear what you think!” is a great way to sneak in some science literature in someone’s stocking, especially since you’re not lecturing them but rather you are asking for their opinion. Kids are especially receptive to this sort of thing – who doesn’t love science toys? Chemistry sets, ant farms, robots you can build and code for yourself – you are both getting something they are sure to love and starting to teach them that science is cool! 

Credit: Kennysarmy used via Creative Commons licence
10. Don’t forget, you’re on vacation!

At the end of the day, the great thing about your family is that you don’t have to agree with them, or like them for that matter. You love them, no matter what crazy things they believe in. Keep that in mind and don’t get discouraged if you’ve shared and shared and all you’re getting is polite refusal to listen. The important thing is that you tried – and you will never know the true impact your words had. Enjoy catching up with your family and spending time together even if you disagree on almost everything. After all, you’re on vacation!

Gaia Cantelli is a postdoctoral associate at Duke University, studying the mechanisms that regulate cancer cell metastasis to the bone and she regularly blogs over at scienceblog.com

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