The Key to Changing Rural Hearts and Minds? Being Respectful, Even When Opinions Are Polarized

It’s the only way to make people more literate on any subject

Approaching people by calling them "stupid" will only incite anger and isolate them further. - Credit by Getty Images
Headshot of Emily Calandrelli

I am an MIT engineer turned science communicator. Through my career, my goal is to get people excited about science. I’m also from West Virginia, which is something that has fundamentally shaped the way I approach this goal.

You see, West Virginia literally ranks last in the U.S. when it comes to the percentage of people who believe global warming is happening. This percentage is influenced by a variety of factors, but for many people it is easy to simplify the issue and assume that this is the case because West Virginians are stupid. (Ah, that lovely hillbilly narrative that we can’t seem to shake!)

In fact, many well-meaning people—especially online—resort to name-calling, snarky comments and dismissive statements when they are conversing with a science denier. Similar situations occur in conversations with flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, evolution deniers, etc. Assumingly, this is done in an effort to convert them, to help change their minds about the science in question.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a science communicator, it is that the quickest way to get someone to stop listening to you is to call them stupid.

Not only is it mean, but it’s inaccurate and counterproductive to science education. The reasons for science denial are far more nuanced than “lack of education.” And if we refuse to address this nuance, then the level of scientific literacy in our country will never change.

In West Virginia’s case, the reasons for climate change denial are primarily related to coal and corporate influence.

For more than a century, West Virginians have grown up believing that coal is integral to their identity. And while the coal industry is slowly dying mostly thanks to market forces from cheaper alternatives, organizations like Friends of Coal continue to enforce and perpetuate the idea that coal is integral to our state’s future in two big ways.

The quickest way to get someone to stop listening to you is to call them stupid.

First, they recruit West Virginia cultural icons (think NASCAR drivers, professional bass fisherman and head football coaches) to be spokesmen for them in commercials and local events. And if you’ve ever been to a football game in West Virginia, you know how important football is to the people in this state. The head coach of your beloved team supports the coal industry? Well, that is an appealing endorsement.

Second, the coal industry as a whole is shoveling money—and coal propaganda—into classrooms. Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of grants have been given to teachers who are willing to implement coal lessons created by the coal industry. You can imagine how unbiased these lessons are. Unfortunately, this is a very appealing offer for West Virginia teachers who are ranked 48th in the country when it comes to teacher’s pay, meaning they often don’t have sufficient funds to buy the classroom supplies they need. In fact, West Virginia teachers made national headlines when they went on a state-wide strike to fight for better pay and benefits, a situation that the coal industry is clearly taking advantage of.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, some in West Virginia think that believing in climate change means betraying our state and losing our state’s identity. For them the phrase “environmentally friendly” comes with negative connotations because the related policies haven’t been friendly to them (or at least that’s the way it’s perceived).

West Virginia is not a unique situation. Today only 68 percent of Americans believe that global warming is happening (compared to 97 percent of climate scientists), only 65 percent accept the science on evolution (compared to 98 percent of scientists) and only 37 percent believe that GMOs are safe for consumption (compared to 88 percent of scientists). There is an unfortunate gap between what the American public believes and what scientists have found to be true.

And for those out who want to help fill this gap in scientific understanding, you have to ask yourself: Is your goal to be right, or is it to change people’s minds?

Because if all you want to do is be right about the science then go ahead, call them stupid. You’ll receive momentary satisfaction from your snarky wit, but you’ll have changed absolutely nothing. But if you want to be persuasive and make a difference, then you need to be kind.

If we want to bridge this gap in scientific understanding, we must first understand where the denial comes from. Because if we never stop to listen to these communities found in states like West Virginia, we’ll never see the corporate influence or understand the deep-seeded pride. We’ll never be able to get to the root of the true issues because we were too busy calling them stupid.

In short, if we want to make Americans more scientifically literate, then we need to be nicer.

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@TheSpaceGal Emily Calandrelli is the Emmy-nominated host and executive producer of FOX’s Xploration Outer Space.