Stanford scientists navigate their religious and academic identities at workshop

March 10, 2019, 2:07 p.m.

“I’m going to out myself,” scientist Kristina Faul told her colleagues, revealing her two lives.

Faul is a climate change researcher at Mills College, but she is also a practicing Christian. Her confession sparked testimonies from other scientists in a Jan. 25 workshop at Stanford on science and spirituality, hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a nonprofit dedicated to promoting collaboration among scientists. One by one, the academics declared their dual citizenship in the worlds of science and faith.

“I can’t talk about either in the other world,” Faul said, referring to her two communities. It’s “a big no-no.”

Faul was one of about 30 researchers, including hydrologists, environmental scientists and epidemiologists, attending the professional development workshop, titled “Science Communication and Engagement with Religious Publics.” AAAS is giving these workshops at six universities across the country this year, and participants at each are given the opportunity to apply for a science communication award for collaborative projects with communities of faith.

The workshops, developed in response to scientist requests, are intended to “support more constructive dialogue with religious communities,” project director for the Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion (DoSER) at AAAS Robert O’Malley said. O’Malley was a co-facilitator of the workshop.

Americans are overwhelmingly religious. Three out of four Americans self-identify as religious or spiritual, according to a 2017 Public Religion Research Institute study. Americans also broadly support science. The vast majority — nine out of 10 — say they put “some” or “a great deal” of confidence in the scientific community, and more than four in five say they are very or moderately interested in new scientific discoveries, according to a 2018 National Science Board report.

Despite these overlapping populations, a 2015 Pew Research Center study indicates the majority of Americans have the impression that science and religion generally conflict. Many seem to assume that others can’t reconcile science and faith, and there is often an implicit pressure to choose one or the other. And scientists are not immune from this conflict.

In an interview with The Daily, Kira Smiley ’18, a first-year coterminal Earth Systems master’s student who attended the workshop, said she has experienced professors saying disparaging things about religious people in the classroom.

“I think that is just missing an opportunity to engage, so it’s sad to me,” Smiley said. “There has to be a better way to bridge that gap.”

She said these incidents send signals to students of faith about their place in science and in the academy. Smiley was one of the Stanford applicants for the science communication award and hopes that it could help support her environmental engagement project with a faith-based student organization.

“You lose a lot of the potential connection” between faith and science, Smiley said. “I think that’s really, really detrimental when that happens.”

For communities of color, the implications of the perceived conflict between science and faith can be especially acute. Black and Latinx Americans are more likely to report that religion is “somewhat” or “very” important in their lives, O’Malley noted. He cited the intersection of community identity, social and civic engagement and religion as a reason for scientists to engage with religious publics.

Messaging and identity: Representations of scientists

Perceived tensions between religious identity and science also interact with cultural messaging about what scientists are like, workshop participants discussed. Many scientists don’t see themselves represented in popular culture depictions of science, said co-facilitator Mary Catherine Longshore, Senior Program Associate in Public Engagement at AAAS. This image can exclude people of faith, people of color and women and widen the divide between scientific knowledge and religious communities, she added.

Four images of scientists in popular culture were shared at the workshop. All were white; three were male. Longshore asked the audience to describe ways scientists can be perceived among the public. Participants popcorned words like “arrogant,” “emotionless” and “socially awkward.”

Longshore told the audience that while the public tends to see scientists as knowledgeable experts, they may not see scientists as “the warm and fuzzy people that [they] are.” She explained that this human element — transparency about the stories and identities of scientists themselves — is a big part of changing these negative perceptions of science and scientists.

When thinking about suspicions of misapplied science that may arise in communities of color and of faith, O’Malley said it’s “worth acknowledging” troubling histories of unethical scientific experimentation on vulnerable people and the “incredible authority” scientists have in society.

Implications of engagement

Also discussed at the workshop was how rifts between scientists and the public, including over spirituality and other issues, can manifest themselves as political and legal conflicts. Many of today’s hot-button scientific controversies are not about some “deficit” of scientific knowledge, but rather encapsulate complex ethical and political divergences. The AAAS “Scientists in Civic Life: Facilitating Dialogue-Based Communication” literature outlines multiple examples, including stem cell research, government intervention in healthcare decisions among anti-vaxxers, genetically modified food and human-caused climate change.

Opposition to genetically modified food technology, for instance, is not simply about fear about consuming toxic Frankenfoods, according to the “Scientists in Civic Life” literature. The tension derives from interconnected perspectives on economic impacts, local control and autonomy, community identity, income inequality and the broader system of industrial food production. Facts about the safety of consuming genetically modified food, “no matter how effectively communicated,” are unlikely to resolve these disagreements.

During an afternoon panel following the workshop, Nalini Nadkarni, a field ecologist and biology professor at the University of Utah, addressed an audience question about rejection of human-caused climate change.

“I don’t think it’s a question of science,” Nadkarni said. “It’s a question of the meanings that are made from science … What’s at stake for you in not accepting the science?”

Nadkarni said she works to foster a “two-way exchange,” where she listens and learns from faith communities. There are many ways of knowing, Nadkarni says, and she works to connect the knowledge of faith communities with that of scientists.

Some scientists find inspiration in this exchange. For Jennifer Saltzman, Director of Outreach Education for Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences, “the weaving of science and spirituality has always been something of interest, of beauty.” Saltzman submitted a proposal for the workshop on the University’s behalf, along with Kaye Storm M.A. ’71 and Maiken Bruhis from the Office of Science Outreach.

“We hadn’t seen this type of workshop at Stanford,” Bruhis said. She said she was glad for the opportunity for the whole Stanford community to learn from the event.

Smiley agreed. “I’m just really inspired and grateful to Stanford for hosting this event, because I think it’s been a long time coming.”

A key message of the discussion was that no one comes to science with their own identities and values.

“People don’t leave their identities at the door of the lab,” O’Malley said. O’Malley shared examples of overlapping identities: scientist, person of faith, parent, Pakistani, runner, woman, environmentalist.

Smiley said it’s important to her that the aspects of her multifaceted identity are aligned.

“You don’t usually get science and religion into the same room,” Smiley said. “But I think there’s a lot of power in bringing those two together and showing that they aren’t in conflict, and often are in tandem … This [workshop] is one step in the right direction.”

Contact Elise Miller at elisejl ‘at’

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