Julia Duin’s article in the May 29 Washington Post (Serpent-handling pastor profiled earlier in Washington Post dies from rattlesnake bite) bothered me a lot, for reasons that I am still exploring. Duin is a photojournalist who has on several occasions reported on a small Pentecostal Christian group in rural West Virginia. This group demonstrates their religious faith by handling poisonous snakes during their church services. They cite Mark 16:17-18: “And these signs will follow those who believe: …they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them…”. Mack Wolford, the pastor of this church, died shortly after a rattlesnake bit him during a “homecoming” celebration over the Memorial Day weekend. His father, the previous pastor, died from a poisonous snakebite in 1983.
This may seem like an odd topic for a science blog, but bear with me a bit. It’s that very unfamiliarity of this whole practice (for most people who are likely to be reading this blog, anyway) that illustrates a problem that scientists have in communicating their research to the public.
Duin struggled over whether she should have called for medical help, which Wolford refused for several hours after he was bitten. This is a perennial issue for photojournalists, who must weigh their responsibility to serve as reliable witnesses to event against their responsibility to offer aid to a fellow human in danger. She wrote about that aspect much better than I could have, so I refer you to her article for that discussion. Basically, these people weren’t ignorant about calling for medical help, they just chose not to.
I sorted through a whole pile of mental conflicts as I read Duin’s article. How far should we take religious tolerance? They weren’t flying airplanes into buildings, after all, but they were trying to win over new recruits to the practice, even in states where it is illegal. These people practice their religion in remote rural areas, so there is little danger of their snakes escaping to terrorize hundreds of office workers taking their lunch break in Farragut Square. On the other hand, we do raise an uproar over other practices such as female genital mutilation that have remained “out of sight, out of mind” until only recently. We’re all connected by our common humanity, so we can’t really say that what “they” do is all right as long as they are only hurting themselves — their pain is ours as well.
What about that story where Satan tempted Jesus to prove his divinity by jumping off the roof of the temple and letting the angels rescue him? Satan quoted a piece of scripture that seemed to support this, much as the snake handlers do. Jesus answered, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” In other words, you have protection when you need it, but it’s not a free pass for taking foolish risks. The fact that your insurance company will pay for your repairs if you get into an auto accident isn’t an encouragement for you to drive down the freeway at 125 miles an hour. Shouldn’t someone point this out to the snake handlers?
This last question is where I make the mental connection to science communications. The snake handlers don’t need anyone to point out that snake bites are dangerous and can kill you. They know it already, they’ve seen it up close. They don’t need anyone to teach them scripture — they probably know it better than most people. They are not suffering from a dearth of information. As one respondent to Duin’s article pointed out, their main concern is not whether they die, but how they die. In their value system, dying while demonstrating their faith is far preferable to living in ambiguity.
You see the same sort of thing with climate change deniers. Their problem is not ignorance. Very few of these people would change their stance after attending a scientific seminar on the topic. As an increasing body of peer-reviewed studies shows, people form their views based not only on the information they have, but also on their vested interests (financial and otherwise), their desire to fit in with their families and communities, the degree to which they trust the source of information, and how this information fits in with their values and established world views.
A recent study in Nature Climate Change illustrates the futility of merely heaping more information on people in an attempt to change their minds. The authors of the Nature article conclude:
It does not follow, however, that nothing can be done to promote constructive and informed public deliberations. As citizens understandably tend to conform their beliefs about societal risk to beliefs that predominate among their peers, communicators should endeavor to create a deliberative climate in which accepting the best available science does not threaten any group’s values. Effective strategies include use of culturally diverse communicators, whose affinity with different communities enhances their credibility, and information-framing techniques that invest policy solutions with resonances congenial to diverse groups. Perfecting such techniques through a new science of science communication is a public good of singular importance.
Even this, however, is only a partial solution, focusing as it does on coming up with more acceptable messengers in what is essentially a one-way flow of information. I would go one step further: listen first. Find out what other people think. Ask them why they think the way they do. Point out the places where you can’t understand their reasoning, or where their actions fly in the face of something you think is obvious or morally imperative, but don’t do it to sell them on your point of view. Do it to point out the areas where you need to learn more about how they think and believe.
Listening breaks the pointless cycle of attack and defense and establishes a starting point for a constructive engagement. You might never reach agreement, but in the act of listening and respecting another point of view, you make it more likely that the other person will listen to you in return. In establishing a dialogue, you make it more likely that you will identify commonalities that can serve as the beginning of constructive action. You establish yourself as a trustworthy source of information, making it more likely that the other person will listen to you in the future. And who knows, you might even learn something new.