ON THE AGENDA | AUGUST 14TH, 2014 | Monica Foust, Ph.D.

When Curiosity Reigns

A dialogue facilitator discusses the surprising level of curiosity between evangelical pastors and scientists.

Public Agenda is partnering with AAAS to facilitate a series of dialogues between scientists and evangelical Christian pastors throughout the summer. The purpose of the project is to improve dialogue, relationships and collaboration between these two communities, often viewed as staunchly divided. This blog is one in a series from our public engagement team, who write to reflect on their experiences moderating the dialogues. Read more about this project here.

Small group discussion moderated by Public Agenda.
AAAS/David Buller

As we make the final preparations for the next set of Perceptions Project dialogues, I can’t help but think back to our first dialogues in Pasadena.

We spent considerable time preparing for those conversations, between evangelical pastors and scientists. We worked with our partners on the project, AAAS, thinking about who should participate and how the dialogues might unfold. We anticipated the tensions that might emerge – tensions that could stall conversation between the two communities. And we thoughtfully planned ways to surface areas of common ground and shared understanding.

Yet despite the many hours of planning that led up to the dialogues, I was unable to foresee what it would feel like to be in them. What I hadn’t, and perhaps couldn’t, anticipate was how eager participants would be to talk to one another and ask questions about each others’ experiences. While there was some tension between the groups, the overarching theme was curiosity.

One interaction in particular has stayed with me since that first dialogue. We were discussing the manner in which scientific data is presented in popular media. A few pastors expressed frustration with the seemingly constant stream of new evidence that is presented as fact yet often appears to be contradictory.

In response, several scientists described the scientific method. They also noted that they are limited in the claims they can make based on a single study and expressed their own frustration at the way their findings are often presented—and inflated—in the media without sufficient context or qualification.

This was an “a-ha” moment for one pastor who, prior to the dialogues, assumed that scientists were responsible for how their findings were presented in different media outlets.

That “a-ha” moment reminded me of the critical role that dialogue can have in connecting us in spite of our differences. For the Pasadena participants, dialogue provided an opportunity to break down misconceptions and provide each group insight into how the other community operates.

As the next dialogues approach, I eagerly anticipate the “a-ha” moments that lie ahead and wonder what questions participants will ask of one another that will deepen their understanding of each others’ experiences.


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