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Scientific Thinking as a Path to Hearing the Other Side

Scientific thinking is guaranteed to encourage you to rethink your views.

Key points

  • Scientific thinking contains a method that we can use to create more inclusive conversations.
  • Scientific thinking encourages us to recognize our blind spots and transform them into facilitators rather than obstacles.
  • To practice scientific thinking, we must consider all the different hypotheses on a polarizing topic.
  • Scientific thinking is guaranteed to encourage you to rethink your views and decisions.

Photo by Justin Kauffman on Unsplash
The Path
Source: Photo by Justin Kauffman on Unsplash

Diversity is a feature of nature. This is true of individuals, families, social classes, religious groups, ethnic groups, and nations. Which means that diverse viewpoints will naturally exist.

However, our diverse viewpoints have created a lot of distress and polarization, particularly during this time of a pandemic and racial reckoning. In fact, our polarized views have contributed to a climate of high tensions and deadlocked social discourse.

A 2019 survey from Pew Research Center showed that 85 percent of people believed the tone and nature of political discourse had become more negative and less respectful over the last several years.

But data also show that people have a desire to express themselves. In a 2018 survey of college students, a large majority of students felt they should be able express their views on important issues but were stifled by fear.

Our current climate does not provide psychological safety for free expression. People often do not feel safe to share their points of view with others out of fear of reprisal. When every conversation has the potential to turn into a battle, honest discussion does not happen and learning cannot be achieved. Why is this the case?

Our current discourse is based on the climate of debate, which is argumentative and divisive by nature. The debate discourse often turns conversations into heated discussions where people are doing more arguing, defending, or avoiding than actually engaging in a dialogue.

Most of the conversations that take place today involve one side being certain that their viewpoint is the right one and trying to prove it by cherry-picking information. This is evident in most of the “us versus them” conversations that occur every day on today’s campuses, on social media, in political forums, and in the streets where protesters and counter-protesters gather. Excelling in debate may be vital for aspiring leaders, policymakers, and legal professionals, but debate discourse supports a partisan, closed style of argument and therefore may not be the best approach for dialogue.

Why do conversations based on the debate discourse fail to encourage safe conversations? Because its argumentative nature forces people to defend their identities. Our viewpoints are formed through our personal memories, histories, and legacies so commanding people to change their minds is akin to asking them to shed their very identity.

People on all sides of a historically sensitive issue have strong feelings, but often, civil discourse with the seemingly noble intention of encouraging inclusion insists on ideological conformity and leaves little space for different perspectives or nuanced conversations. When the most difficult, polarizing issues that we face today – racial justice, healthcare, climate change, immigration, police bias, and so on – require cooperation and unity to solve, the debate discourse leaves us nowhere closer to a solution.

I’d like to offer an alternative approach based on scientific thinking. My approach requires a process of facilitated conversations where people learn how to scientifically reason together about difficult questions, even when in stark disagreement.

I used this approach at Harvard when, as a clinical and social psychologist, I brought adult children of Holocaust survivors face-to-face with adult children of Nazis, and then later the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of African American slaves and slave holders. Facilitated conversations between these polarized groups revealed that every participant had shared threads of emotions and conflicts with the past that still touches their lives.

Both sets of people reported that they felt like they had inherited a painful legacy that consumed large parts of their lives and identities. In an environment where both sides could safely express their experiences, these two sets of people descended from historically opposed groups were able to understand that they shared a sense of victimhood. A climate of debate would have prevented these conversations from the progress that led to common threads of understanding.

These meetings were conducted using the method of scientific reasoning, a valuable approach to recognize our blind spots and transform them into facilitators rather than obstacles. People do not always think of scientific reasoning as a path to understanding in emotionally charged conflicts. But, on the contrary, scientific reasoning does not take emotion out of the conversation. Instead, it allows us to pause and reflect on how our emotions have shaped our viewpoints and what effect they have when we engage in dialogue.

Scientific thinking is a fair method for evaluating polarized views, fake news, misinformation, and disinformation. All opinions are viewed as hypotheses to be tested, rather than emotional beliefs to be proven. Scientific thinking uses the dialectic method that emphasizes bringing together people who hold different views and deeply felt emotions about a topic but who also wish to understand the other and test their hypothesis.

Scientific thinking is not personal so one does not judge the other for their view. When conversations on polarizing topics get bogged down by emotional opinions, scientific thinking encourages us to consider the alternative hypotheses and gather all the data to reach a shared understanding and consensus.

Of course, I did not invent scientific thinking. It has been a tried and tested approach since before Galileo, who in the 17th century encouraged experimentation and welcomed others to find evidence to refute his astronomical discoveries. Scientific reasoning has been paramount to developing a deeper understanding of the world and our shared reality. It is also an approach that can transform how people think. In a 1931 speech on education, Albert Einstein emphasized that science education should focus on teaching people how to think scientifically rather than acquiring detailed knowledge.

To practice scientific thinking, individuals must consider all the different hypotheses on a polarizing topic, gather all available data, some of which may be contradictory, and discuss with one another how they each interpret the data and reconcile the conflicting evidence. Through this process can the group reach a consensus about what is and is not agreed on – a shared truth. Scientific thinking has the ability to transform one-dimensional, polarizing views into mutual understanding and open dialogue.

For nearly 20 years, I have been teaching a course on the psychology of diversity and courses on advanced research methods using the scientific thinking approach. As a professor and researcher, I have also seen how attainable this skill is. When conversations in the class on polarizing topics get bogged down by opinions, I remind my students to use our scientific reasoning life raft, which can help us avoid sinking and becoming stuck in the workings of our own minds. Scientific thinking skills are portable, actionable, and transformative. Scientific thinking is guaranteed to encourage people to rethink their views and decisions.

Scientific thinking contains within itself a system of logic and standards of evidence that can be used to create a more inclusive approach to social discourse. This approach has the potential to build a climate where everyone feels safe to express hypothetical views to be tested and discussed. The quest for mutual understanding, rather than being right, allows people to explore each other’s viewpoints safely.

Copyright Mona Sue Weissmark 2021; All Rights Reserved; Please do not copy or distribute this article without permission.

References

Weissmark, M. (2020). The Science of Diversity. Oxford University Press, USA. https://www.amazon.com/Science-Diversity-Mona-Sue-Weissmark/dp/0190686340

Weissmark, M. (2020). Do Diversity Training Programs Work? Creating a Culture of Inclusion through Scientific Reasoning. Skeptic Magazine. https://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/do-diversity-training-programs-work-creating-culture-of-inclusion-through-scientific-reasoning-mona-sue-weissmark/

Weissmark, M. (2020). Advice to Students: Learn to Think Scientifically. The Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/02/embrace-logic-to-improve-both-education-and-society/

Weissmark, M. (2004). Justice Matters:Legacies of the Holocaust and World War II. Oxford University Press, USA. Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Justice-Matters-Legacies-Holocaust-World/dp/0195157575

Pew Research Center. (2019, June 19). Public highly critical of state of political discourse in the U.S. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/06/19/public-highly-critical-of-state-of-political-discourse-in-the-u-s/

Knight Foundation. (2018, March 12). Free expression on campus: What college students think about first amendment issues. https://knightfoundation.org/reports/free-expression-on-campus-what-college-students-think-about-first-amendment-issues/

Einstein, A. (1931, October 14). On education [Address]. Albany, New York. http://www.cse.iitm.ac.in/~kalyantv/pdf/on_edu.pdf

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