Understanding is what you eat
If there ever were a phrase to reap guilt out of those last few bites of greasy chips or fries, it must be you are what you eat. For myself, that must mean my blood plasma is sadly often some solution of antifreeze-colored energy drinks or sodas, and my limited muscle mass the pepperoni from that fondly-remembered and often-indulged frozen pizza.
And while no, not 100% of your body is replaced by that last hamburger or salad, there’s wisdom here. The fact is that we are very much a product of our circumstances and of what we surround ourselves by.
Case in point: Our understanding of this world (and our reaction to that understanding) is no different.
This is a truism of course, but it’s an easy thing to forget when it comes to scientific, intellectual, or really any particularly meaningful and impassioned discourse. There’s an easy sentiment that the truth should out, that what is “right” has some special clarity or privilege in the discussion, or even in the least, that it’s at most a matter of how to convey the correct information.
Yet we live in the world we do — a world with near infinite access to information (the internet) and even its own form of global peer review (comment threads and social media), somehow, all-the-while still challenged by outmoded understandings and even, in some cases, outright resistance to the truth.
And the reason, at least in part, is that understanding is what you eat. And everything you eat at that.
No matter how much we want to believe that educating is simply a matter of presenting the right facts correctly, it simply is not. What we know and believe is, at least in equal part, also a social science. It is a combination of what we hear and imbibe in the context of our resources, influences, values, and identities. Understanding is a byproduct of everything that comes in to us. From every source.
We might as well take a few examples:
Understanding is a function of our time and resources. At the end of the work day, if I’m trying to be responsible at this whole adulting thing, I (a fairly simple man) should at least: try and exercise, eat
somewhat healthily (well, it still takes time to microwave…), try and be hygienic (or at least not smell too bad the next day), make sure my cat doesn’t starve, and at least guarantee a few minutes of down-time. Now try and add anything more complicated, starting with some common ones like chores, hobbies, or children, and then ask yourself where time exists to imbibe and scrutinize any complex, outside-of-expertise topic, especially from any issue that holds conflicting reports. And of course, all of this can be further exasperated by a challenged socioeconomic status or lack of other resources than time. From the very start, how much we can consume of any truth is surprisingly limited.
Understanding is a function of values and benefits. In a world of limited time and resources, we will allocate ourselves in ways that most benefit or satisfy our preferences, core values, and pre-existing beliefs. And why not? There’s so much information out there. Why not only search and internalize that which furthers existing goals? New information, after all, can be dangerous. It may destabilize one’s sense of self or way of viewing the world. It may even carry a real social price, forcing one to change to beliefs that are not conducive to the current social group. We are then, by nature, picky eaters.
Understanding is a function of social influence. Another truism, but overwhelmingly impactful. Your social group dictates the memes you are exposed to on a day-to-day basis, the pressures and standards you must fulfill to be “accepted,” many of the new ideas you are exposed to, much of the opportunities and resources you have available, and so much more. If knowledge is any dish, then the menu has already been set.
All of which (and many other unstated examples) is why I continually beat this drum that learning and changing minds is about more than what we know, and more than how to convey that knowledge. In fact, achieving the end goal of any communication effort (science communication or otherwise) might have little do with the communicating itself.
Because understanding is what you eat — everything you take in and everything that makes you, from the social influences and pressures down to the deepest hopes and fears that feed your everyday motivations. It’s how we choose to spend our time, what we imbibe while doing so, and why we did it in the first.
Science communication then must also consider itself part of a social science. An educational one. A psychological one. A political one. A humanities and liberal arts one. And an endeavor to actually reshape the landscape across all these factors. We should not be surprised then if lasting, meaningful change on any issue requires work beyond just the science itself. It never could just be about facts after all, nor simply how to convince, because it never was. It’s about us, and everything that makes us who we are.