Presenting Scientific Arguments To Hostile Audiences

Dr. Jory Weintraub discusses the impact of divisiveness on scientific communication.

My diction was deliberate, my prose was precise, and my verbs were—well, verbose: I was ready to debate.

But, this was no ordinary debate.

If I were to succeed in my endeavors at that very moment, I would prove to my family once and for all…that my brother should not be allowed to take my car to the beach that night.

The evidence was in my favor, the keys were in my hands (both metaphorically and literally), and I even got my palms read the day before, so I was feeling lucky.

But it was peculiar. Regardless of the impregnable defense that I presented, it seemed almost as if they just didn’t want to hear it—that no matter how much information I provided, they were resigned to say, “Wyatt, just let Rex have the car tonight.” And I know what you’re thinking: “Wow, weird name” (his, not mine).

However, in trivial situations, such as the one I described above, the stakes are low. There are no real consequences to the rejection of the “argument” that I presented, nor are there any future implications to the outcome of the night.

But, when it comes to the acceptance of science, there are always further implications. This exact phenomenon was one of the many topics of discussion that the 2023 cohort of the Huang Fellows had the pleasure of examining with Dr. Weintraub.

During this discussion, Dr. Weintraub presented findings from a study that detailed different groups’ sentiments towards new information pertaining to certain scientific claims. The shocking results of this study elucidated a distinct divergence in acceptance of new information between groups of test subjects, upon being presented with the same information.

“…some people forget that they’re supposed to be arguing for what’s right or what’s wrong, so they instead argue for the sole purpose of wanting to be correct—a dangerous trait.”

Though the criteria that defined the composition of the groups would vary from issue to issue, one particular example can be seen in the following graph:

biofuels economic impact vs risk perception graph

This brings up the question: if different groups of people react differently to the same information, how does one go about presenting science in such a way that more of the populous is willing to consume it? The answer: carefully.

In deliberating upon the direction of where I could take this reflection from this point on, I considered the route of going down the list and describing the different methods that exist to properly communicate one’s scientific findings effectively to a large audience. But, I imagine such a description would look dangerously verbatim to Dr. Weintraub’s talk, and I would hate for someone to get that talk without also getting to see the fabulous PowerPoint that Dr. Weintraub prepared to go with it.

So, instead, I plan to take an alternative route and discuss what stood out to me the most throughout this talk: human divisiveness.

More specifically: the almost-inherent divisiveness that exists when large groups of people form. Sometimes, it seems that even when an uncontestable opinion arises, there will always be those that disagree.

This is a problem, especially when decisions need to be made. Interestingly enough, so much arguing can bubble up from this decision-making that, eventually, some people forget that they’re supposed to be arguing for what’s right or what’s wrong, so they instead argue for the sole purpose of wanting to be correct—a dangerous trait.

And upon further inspection, I imagine not many would disagree if I were to purport that a large portion of the voices that we hear going back and forth are there only to serve the interests of the people who are producing them.

So, if I were to attempt to venture into Dr. Weintraub’s territory: if you think you have something important to say, and you plan to say it, cater to the audience of people that you are trying to affect and embrace the fact that perhaps the audience, initially, doesn’t want to hear what you have to say.

But no matter what, at the end of the day, there will always be those who hold opinions so contrary to the majority’s that it makes the common man wonder. For instance, incredibly enough, there are actually still those out there who believe that UNC is a better school than Duke, a perfect example of the extent to which people are willing to distort reality in order to support a completely, unfounded opinion.

“For though they may be parted, there is still a chance that they will see…
there will be an answer.”
-Paul McCartney

“For though they may be parted, there is still a chance that they will see…there will be an answer.” -Paul McCartney

Wyatt Focht, Huang Fellow ’23

Focht_WyattWyatt is a frshemen from Naples, Flordida. He plans to pursue a double major in Electrical & Computer Engineering and Computer Science, as well as a Master’s degree in Fintech during his senior year.