At the end of last week, I made a quick trip to UCLA to visit with some researchers who, despite having been targets of violence and intimidation, are looking for ways to engage with the public about research with animals. I was really struck by their seriousness about engaging folks on “the other side”, rather than just hunkering down to their research and hoping to be left alone.
The big thing we talked about was the need to shift the terms of engagement.
The mode people seem most used to — and the one that seems to make the least difference — is the debate. In a debate, the point is to win. Your aim is to score points, whether positive points for your position or negative points against your opponent. This can have the effect of reducing an exchange to dueling talking-points, my factual claim against your criticism of the source and reliability of that factual claim, and so forth. No one ends up knowing much more than they did when they came to the debate, and none of the participants’ minds are likely to change.
I would argue that a better way to engage would be in a dialogue. Rather than setting the participants up as opponents in a point-scoring game, a dialogue makes participants partners in the project of understanding each other (and themselves) better. Dialogue lets you hear what issues are really important to the participants. It lets you explore the reasons they are concerned by various courses of action. It opens up the possibility of finding shared commitments and common ground. It won’t magically resolve all conflicts, but holds out some chance of letting all the participants see what the conflicts are really about.
And, dialogue seems like it could lead to such improved understanding, and even to commitments to find ways to work with each other, without bludgeoning anyone either figuratively or literally.
Now, for these researchers at UCLA — and for the scientific community more generally — the challenge will be to figure out how to cultivate a culture of dialogue. Getting the public thinking and talking with scientists about animal research isn’t the kind of thing you’d want to relegate to one or two public events. Rather, ideally, it should become a normal part of how scientists and non-scientists live together in the same society. Talking to each other and listening to each other is bound to make that coexistence more harmonious.
In addition to lots of one-on-one discussion during my visit, I also gave a brief talk. Because I was asked to, I’m posting the slides. Here’s the Powerpoint file, and below you should be able to watch the slideshow without having to download it.
I didn’t sync in any audio, but if you read my series in April on impediments to dialogue about animal research (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8) you can probably fill in a good guess about what I might have said as these slides were projected.