The science of prejudice

As promised (yes, yes, I know the world has been counting the seconds to the publication of this long awaited post!), here’s more thoughts from the conference on the Science of Science Communication. Beware though, I’m on a bus to New York, it’s a 5 hour long journey, so there’s good potential for this post to be quite long, since the things to say are so many and my hands are feeling itchy to type.

So here we go.

There was one particularly interesting discussion that took place on Monday, following a presentation given by Dr. Susan Fiske, from Princeton University. Susan is a very well renowned social psychologist and one of the big cheeses when it comes to research on prejudice and stereotypes towards minorities, racial groups, class and, of course, science and scientists. In her presentation she showed us some data from one of her latest studies, which was more than a little worrying.

She identifies two fundamental dimensions along which stereotyped groups can find themselves: competence and warmth. Competence is how good a person is predicted to be at their job and it is often associated to their status. Warmth, on the other hand, indicates how amiable a person is and it is often predicted by cooperation and predisposition to help.

By crossing competence and warmth and mixing them in different amounts over some ice, you can get cocktails of different prejudices. “The pitied group” (housewives, the elderly), are seen as warm but not competent. The contempt group (homeless, thieves, addicts) are seen as neither competent nor warm. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the admiration group (doctors, nurses, social workers), the group we would all like to belong to, where warmth coexists with competence. And finally, the envy group, a very sinister and dangerous group to fall into (lawyers, businessmen and scientists are part of this), made up of highly competent but cold people.


Competent, cold and eliciting envy. Now this is bad, really bad news, for science. Envy is the feeling of “I want to be like them, it’s not fair, they have more than me, they think they are better than me, I dislike them”. Envy isn’t a good companion of trust, reliance and respect. Envy is an old, bitter, emaciated widow. So, not only are scientists notoriously bad at communicating with the public, but they also have to do extra work, to fight against that envy and prejudice that oppresses them.

So, what? Well, let’s think of why this happens. People assume a lot, in a very short time. We are very good at picking up just a few cues to help us fit people into social categories of gender, race, age, class etc.. in order to decide how much we can trust them and like them. it is the human equivalent of butt sniffing in dogs. And it’s ok, I say, as long as we are aware of our fallibility. With education comes awareness and with awareness comes freedom. Clearly history is against scientists, who have been seen as an elite class of highly competent and cold people for far too long. If scientists want to make an impact, communicate, be listened, be liked, they have to actively reverse things, change hundreds of years of history. This won’t be easy, but once again with awareness comes freedom, and if scientists could all become aware of how deeply engrained the prejudice against them is, surely they would change their attitude in respect to the public.

How? Stop trying to impress your fellow scientists. Drop the jargon. Drop it. Drop it, I said! Repeat concepts. Say it again. And again. Maybe your PI doesn’t like it, but people like hearing things more than once. Smile. And yes, sorry for stating the obvious, especially after the last post on this blog, but do use analogies, metaphors and carefully constructed compelling narratives. Narrative is so important. It’s the canvas over which you can draw lines and fill with colours. No narrative, no canvas, no picture.

Susan’s research shows that when people want to appear warm, they tend to select words that are low in competence and when they want to appear competent, they’ll choose words low in warmth. The paper also argues that participants do not intend to convery a lack of one or the other. However to appear positively in one dimension, appearing negatively in the other is an unavoidable sacrifice. So this is what good science communicators ought to do: find the sweet spot, a good balance between the two, and learn how to swiftly move from one to the other, depending on their audience and how they want to be perceived. Sometimes it might be preferable to put your cold face on and talk facts, but sometimes it is also necessary to draw people closer and make them smile.

Isn’t that, in the end, the key to the huge success of Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Cox and all that lot?

Writing this, I am instantly thinking of an episode from “Wonders of Life”, the BBC Nature documentary series presented by Prof. Brian Cox. Twenty minutes into the show we see Prof. Cox trying to spit in a test tube, missing, and getting his spit all over his hand, and chuckling like a kid. Now, that’s a good example of competence going down in favour of warmth. How difficult can it be to aim at a test tube? But at the same time, that made everyone laugh, and I was so glad the editors decided to keep that scene in.

You might think I am stating the obvious here. And well, you are right. This is all very obvious. So why is the problem still there? Why are people envious and afraid of scientists? Why are scientists failing at portraying a more human, warm side of themselves? My answer is, we need more science communication education, from an earlier stage. We need science communication, in theory AND in practice, from undergraduate level. We can’t wait for people to reach their 40s before they have to apply for a grant that required them to invest 10% of the grant money into public engagement, for them to realise they’ve never done it and have no idea how to do it. By that time, it’s too late. They have to realised from much earlier on in their career that they have a duty, an obligation towards all those tax payers out there. A duty to make them aware of how they are spending their money. A duty to educate them, to reassure them, a duty towards the new generations, towards the expansion of science and knowledge itself. Everything is science, the debates on evolution in schools, the debates on obesity and nutrition, the debates on climate change, the debates on GMO, on food production, on ecology, on nanotechnology, on medicine, science is absolutely everywhere and scientists have to be there, first in line, to represent, defend and explain their work. They can’t wait for journalists to do that for them and then get annoyed when they don’t do it they way they wanted them to. Journalists, after all, have their own agenda, like everyone else, they’re not here to do a scientist’s job.

Things are changing, very quickly. People are as inquisitive as ever, they have more access to a lot of bad science through the internet, they want to know more. It is time things changed and a new generation of socially responsible scientists must be encouraged in every possible way.

I want to close this already long post by quoting something that Dr. Bill Hallman said in response to Susan’s presentation:

“If you want to speak to the public, you have to understand the public. How? Go and do some waitressing in a bar for a year or two. You’ll learn more about people during that time than in any academic conference. I always tell my student – there’s time for grad school. First, go and wash dishes for a year, then come back to Uni and start your PhD if you want to. You’ll be a more responsible, more understanding, more communicating, more human person then – ”


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