Five tips on how to have a constructive science debate

Get your point across effectively, not aggressively.
Image credit: Circuito Fora do Eixo
via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0 licence
by Gaia Cantelli, PhD

Whether you are a scientist, a science student or a science enthusiast, you probably like to talk about science with people in your life. A lot of science conversations, however, tend to turn into heated debates and, if you are not careful, into full-blown arguments. Many areas of science, such as evolution, stem cell research or global warming can be highly controversial because they clash with people’s moral, ethical or religious beliefs. If you are talking to another science enthusiast, you may disagree about a science article or a piece of science news andon the impact it may have on society.

Here are some tips for you to have a productive science debate with anyone, whether they are a lay-person or a professional in the field. Hopefully these will help you connect with people, get your point across and overcome your differences. 

1. Be respectful of each other’s perspective
When two people disagree, it is often because they come at the same problem with completely different points of view. Differences in background and perspective must be respected, no matter where you and your conversation partner stand on any number of controversial issues. In fact, respect for each other is the foundation of any productive debate. If you find yourself at a point where you feel the conversation is taking an excessively personal or confrontational tone, take a minute to re-establish respectful boundaries. Explicitly tell the other person that you respect them as an individual or a professional (as the case may be) and that you respect the fact they come at the issue from a different background. Let them know their perspective has value! While flatly telling others we respect them is not a very common approach, it can go a long way in helping you develop a productive relationship with people you have little in common with, even if it only lasts for the length of your conversation.

 Even in intense debate, respect is vital.
Credit: Marcelo Freixo via Flickr CC BY 2.0 licence
2. Think of ways in which you DO agree
Another way to de-escalate a conversation and to make things less confrontational and more comfortable is to find the common ground between yourself and your conversation partner. No matter how much you disagree on a controversial topic, there must be something that you agree on. For example, if you disagree on stem cell research because of ethical issues, you may want to agree on the fact that medical research in general is a wonderful thing and that we should keep striving to help patients as best we can. Obvious as it may seem, this type of approach serves to humanize you in the eyes of your “opponent” - and help them stop seeing you as one. Feeling as though you have something in common can help you listen to each other’s point and make it easier to overcome cognitive dissonance and change your mind if needed. 

3. Allow them to change your mind (even on something minor!)
Consider that you may not, in fact, be right. The situation may be highly nuanced and there may not be a right or a wrong. Or you may be wrong. Keep this in mind and try to be open to new ideas. If this doesn’t seem likely for you, allowing the other person to see that you are open to changing your mind can go a long way to help them see you as more credible and intellectually honest. Showing your open mindedness is far more effective than talking about it. Of course, you don’t have to agree to ideas or plans you don’t approve of, but there may be some small way in which you can show that you are open to new ideas. For example, you may be able to tell them that their definition of a specific word is more poignant than yours. If you really can’t find anything about their ideas you can honestly agree to, you can get some of the same effect by working an instance of you being open-minded into the conversation. For example,you could say: ” I used to think that X, but I spoke to Y and now I think Z”.

4. Always back up everything with scientific evidence
While engaging in intense debate, it is quite easy even for the most rational people to get carried away. Make a conscious effort to make sure that everything you say is backed up with believable scientific evidence. Of course, no matter how much you prepare for a debate it is likely that at some point in the conversation you will stumble on some question or idea you don’t know very much about. You can make a point of stopping your debate and looking up the scientific evidence you need - not just to substantiate your point but to learn something new. Looking things up during your discussion can also bring up some interesting points in your debate about the sources you use to find information and what you consider to be reliable scientific news. 

5. Ask lots of questions!
Formal or informal, debates must rely on evidence.
Credit: International Debate Education Association
via Flickr CC BY 2.0 licence
No matter what you talk about and whether or not the debate resolves itself with either of you changing your minds, the only way to win a real life debate is by walking away with something new! Whether it is a new idea, new information, a new source of scientific information or simply a new point of view, make sure you walk away from your conversation knowing more than you did when you started. Ask questions! How does the person you are talking to approach the topic, or science in general? How do their beliefs shape the way they frame new information? How do they research things? Who they believe and why? Make sure you understand not only what they think, but how they got to that conclusion, or why they think that way. While they may never change your mind, they may well give you the tools to look at the same question in a different way. 

What are your science debate ideas? Did you ever change your mind when talking about science with a friend, a colleague or a stranger on a bus?Let us know in the comments below!

Gaia Cantelli is a lecturing fellow 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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