When trying to communicate with polarized groups, there often can be gridlock. Strong opinions from both sides make it difficult to have a productive conversation. People reinforce the things that they already believe and will have difficulty believing the other side. Over time, opinions get stronger, and animosity grows between people who identify with different parties. This causes stalemates in Congress and hostilities between different communities.
Nicky Krause is an Assistant Researcher and Civic Science Fellow in the Department of Life Sciences Communication (LSC) who investigates how we can have productive conversations about controversial scientific issues among groups of people who may feel alienated from science. Nicky’s research in this area is funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to LSC professor Dietram Scheufele, and is situated within a broader Civic Science Fellows program, a research and leadership collective that works to enable meaningful connections with diverse communities on scientific topics, spearheaded by the by the Rita Allen Foundation.
The John Templeton Foundations supports research and action that questions conventional assumptions, and which shows how cross-disciplinary research can be. The Templeton Foundation aims to inspire curiosity by engaging members of the public with innovative ideas aligned with its major funding areas, including Science & the Big Questions, Character Virtue Development, Individual Freedom & Free Market, Exceptional Cognitive Talent & Genius, Genetics, and Voluntary Family Planning.
Krause’s work will focus on conservative groups, religious groups, and people living in rural areas. These communities can feel alienated from science, which can contribute to tensions and disconnects in science communication efforts. “Here in LSC we have a long track record working with groups that feel lie science doesn’t always speak for or to them,” says Scheufele. “Science doesn’t belong to one political party or a particular faith, and it’s scientists’ responsibility to make sure that this comes though when we talk about science.”
Krause’s research builds on this work. It is based on the assumption that people whose beliefs are not aligned with scientific consensus might have legitimate concerns and criticisms. Rather than blaming groups for their not “trusting the science,” we should instead attempt to understand their perspectives and concerns. The grant from the Templeton Foundation will help Krause to directly apply her LSC research to have an impact in the field to find the best strategies to publicly engage within a wide range of communities, while adopting a position of intellectual humility and open-mindedness.
“The emphasis on conservative, rural, religious audiences is really interesting because there can be some hostility towards these groups. If we are seeing opposition to scientific evidence, it doesn’t make sense to blame these groups—their concerns may actually be legitimate. It makes much more sense to ask what we are doing wrong on the science communication side. Most likely, we are not talking to these groups in terms that matter to them, or we seem too dismissive of them, so why would they listen to us?” said Krause.
Krause’s work looks at how to establish more effective communication among people when they have strongly divergent opinions. She investigates ways to intervene in certain psychological tendencies that are activated in contexts of intense disagreement. Her main question is what produces more productive engagement on scientific topics in those circumstances, with a specific emphasis on these audiences. As a part of her Civic Science Fellowship, Krause is connecting with partner organizations that already have a deep investment in and connection to the communities of interest.
One example is RepublicEn, an organization that describes itself as representing the views of the “EcoRight,” and which argues that the values of political conservativism need not be at odds with energy-related policies informed by scientific evidence on topics like climate change. Through partnerships such as this, Krause can access communities of interest more directly to conduct exploratory conversations and eventually data collection in the form of surveys and experiments. Krause also will be better able to understand the kinds of research insights that are of practical value to science communicators who are prepared to design or implement science communication initiatives.
This research is not new to Krause. She started her journey as an LSC Ph.D. student with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to Principal Investigators (PIs) Dietram Scheufele, Dominique Brossard, and Mike Xenos (all LSC faculty) to research how to effectively communicate with people from different backgrounds. Her work focuses on communication dynamics surrounding emerging or controversial science and technology, with an emphasis on topics that have profound ethical and societal implications. The Civic Science Fellowship will allow her to focus on narrower audiences and the direct impacts to each community.
“The most interesting part about this work is that it has an impact and isn’t just academic writing. You have the opportunity to work with a community and share knowledge with each other to effectively communicate. When there is opposition between groups, there can be blaming instead of trying to reach the communities where they are. Mutual understanding and intellectual humility are key,” said Krause.
Story by Sarah Kubiak, LSC B.S. ’22 and LSC’s 2021-2022 Lenore Landry Scholar