The scientific worldview has made significant contributions to human progress. However, as science delves into areas once dominated by religion, such as the origins of the universe and consciousness, science communication often presents a pessimistic view of the world.
For instance, an article in New Scientist suggests that our perception of dogs loving us may be an illusion. Physicist Brian Greene predicts humanity’s ultimate fate in the demise of the Solar System. Writer Yuval Noah Harari argues in his book Sapiens that life has no inherent meaning. Philosopher David Benatar goes so far as to claim that being born is a negative thing.
While scientists may not view the universe in the same pessimistic light, this perspective can clash with values that humanity holds dear, such as meaning, purpose, and free will.
One crucial role of science communication is to mobilize people to address pressing issues like the COVID pandemic and climate change. However, scientists and science communicators often see humans as nothing special, a concept known as the Copernican principle. This principle suggests that humans are not unique observers of the universe compared to other potential beings. It also implies that attributing meaning to human life or considering human relationships exceptional falls outside the realm of science. Consequently, humans are deemed to have no unique value, and any suggestion otherwise is dismissed as unscientific.
This creates paradoxes in science communication. We live in a deterministic world without free will, yet we must choose to accept science and combat climate change. We must act now, even though the universe is destined to end in a dead, freezing void and life is deemed meaningless. These paradoxes can lead those who do not align with science’s view of the universe to reject scientific arguments about climate change. If accepting the need to stop using fossil fuels is tied to accepting that life has no meaning, it is understandable that some people are hesitant.
Moreover, embracing “science” may also mean acknowledging that one’s religion is false, spirituality is an illusion, and the bond with one’s dog is based on an evolutionary lie.
Science communication should consider people’s beliefs. While science itself may not care what people believe, science communication should. Health communication provides a good example. Hospitals accommodate different languages and ask about religion to ensure sensitivity and provide appropriate spiritual guidance. Public health messaging is tailored to its audience based on research in health anthropology. This approach aims to achieve the best health outcomes and create patient-centered care, even though viruses and chronic diseases do not care about religious or spiritual beliefs.
Similarly, science communication should consider non-science factors when evaluating outcomes. Just as the World Health Organization’s Social Determinants of Health Framework examines non-medical factors that influence health outcomes, science communication should also consider non-science factors.
Proponents of science often view themselves as battling superstition and religion. However, if the goal of science communication is to make the world a better place, we should not let this battle distract us. Science communicators should adopt a more sensitive and anthropological approach. Understanding what people value and how to reach them can help science advancements have a positive impact. We do not need to alter scientific discoveries, but we should avoid telling people their lives have no meaning from the outset of a popular science book. As Brian Greene suggests, we have strategies to cope with our impermanence that provide hope as we strive for eternity.