Dinner Party 101: In Which Ann Meets Dr. Skeptic, Part 1

We’ve all been there: Thanksgiving dinner with that uncle—the outspoken climate-change-denier (“Please, it was so cold this winter!”); a phone call with an anti-vaxxer friend (“Everyone knows that vaccines contain dangerous chemicals!”); or an attempt to impress by a daughter’s new boyfriend (“But I’ve heard that the mammalian eye is way too complicated to have evolved by chance!”).

What’s a poor scientist to do? Sit in miserable silence? Start an argument? Perhaps pour yourself a glass of wine, or six? Truth be told, I have tried all of those strategies. And I’m here to tell you that they don’t work very well. But it is possible to engage people who reject or doubt the established scientific consensus without starting World War III or surrendering your self-respect. It’s even possible to change people’s minds—at least some people’s minds, some of the time. But more important than changing minds is acting as a respectful diplomat from the Country of Science.

We’ve been talking for awhile about starting a series in which NCSE staff helps you navigate the tricky world of talking about science in a social setting. This is important even when your audience doesn’t include a “skeptic”—all scientists need to learn how to communicate effectively with non-scientists, whether science friend or potential science foe. As Stephanie Keep pointed out in a recent post, polls show that people respect scientists, but they don’t necessarily trust them. Talking about science in an engaging manner free from jargon is key to narrowing the gap between scientists and those who admire scientists, but aren’t sure they accept specific conclusions that rub them the wrong way.

I was inspired to write this inaugural post when just the other week I found myself seated next to a climate “skeptic” at a dinner party. A self-described “curmudgeon,” the gentleman in question—holder of a PhD in a discipline of science that shall remain nameless (but feel free to speculate…)—told me that he just wasn’t sure that recent changes in climate were not part of a natural cycle.

What would you say?

And with that short teaser, I’ll leave it to you to come up with some ideas. In a few days, I’ll tell you how the conversation actually went down.