“We Need to Increase the Public Understanding of Evolution”

(April 6th, 2017) Last February, an extraordinary conference took place in Portugal. It was a meeting to discuss how to teach society about evolution and why this is so important. We spoke with the event's organisers about the challenges of presenting the concept of evolution to the general public.

Lab Times: Why does the organisation believe meetings like these are needed? Why focus on evolution?

EvoKE: Promoting the public understanding of evolution requires a joint effort from a range of different fields: scientists, communicators, media and of course educators. As the reality may be different across different European countries, involving as many European countries as possible was essential to this effort. Therefore, setting up a European discourse with as many players as possible on this important topic was therefore critical.

Evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology and as an eminent biologist, Theodosius Dobzhansky, once said “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. This applies to a number of societal questions and decisions, such as our health (e.g the mis-use of antibiotics), food security (the crops we grow and choice of pesticides) and conservation (e.g. our response to the current biodiversity crisis and climate change). All of these issues cannot be addressed without a firm understanding of evolution. Yet in Europe, a formal discourse about the state of the public acceptance and understanding of evolution was lacking.

How many people were in attendance? What countries were involved?

There were 95 people: scientists, educators, science communicators, journalists all from 15 different countries including for example Greece, Turkey, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Germany, Croatia, France, the UK, Sweden, The Netherlands, Switzerland, USA and Canada.

EvoKE is a growing community, with 153 members that have joined it. It is an open community and everyone (scientists, educators, science communicators, etc.) is invited to join. All you need to do is to fill in this form. You will be included in our e-mail list and introduced to the EvoKE community.

What can be done to address the lack of understanding by the general public?

Increasing the public understanding of evolution requires several different approaches tailored to different publics. Throughout this process, researchers should be pro-active and at the forefront of science communication efforts.

In formal education, it is important to ensure that evolution is throughout the entire curriculum from as early as kindergarten, as it is the key concept that underlies and links all topics in biology. It is important that students understand how evolution impacts our society and their daily lives. To promote effective teaching, we need to empower teachers from distinct grades to teach science programs under an evolutionary perspective. This will require teacher training programs to be developed, tested and implemented, a task that will strongly benefit from strong collaborations between teachers, education researchers and evolutionary biologists.

Science journalism, outreach events, museum exhibitions, artistic performances and citizen science projects are fundamental to promoting lifelong learning and making people aware of new scientific discoveries. When communicating with the public, evolutionary biologists should be aware of and avoid widespread misconceptions that are strongly rooted in the public. Often, the impacts of scientific discoveries are exaggerated or sensationalised, undermining the public’s trust in science. Also, scientists are often depicted as strange, socially inept humans, making people shy away from scientific careers or scientific knowledge.

What were the main results from the meeting?

Best practices were identified at several EvoKE 2017 break-out sessions, which apply to researchers and to people developing science communication projects. These include:

  • Try to know your public to understand how to engage them (what are their interests, what is the best activity to reach them) and how to communicate with them (for example, how much simplification is needed);
  • Identify important messages to communicate, possible misconceptions or misunderstandings that may arise. If short, catchy phrases or sound bites are needed, make sure that they are scientifically accurate; highlight not only the findings but also the processes that lead to them.
  • Try to create empathy with people and emotional bonds. For example, make the conversation as personal as possible; refer to your personal and daily life experiences with which people can identify with; don’t talk only about successes but also about failures to show that science still is a human endeavour.
  • Storytelling is a great way to make complicated issues more understandable. If possible, try and find some good examples about the relevance of research to daily life experiences or problems of people.
  • In outreach events, try to make the events surprising, funny and to promote a direct contact between researchers and the public.

What practical ideas and projects were discussed at the meeting? When/how/where are these projects going to be implemented?

Lots! There were more than 10 working groups that formed at EvoKE 2017. One project worked on the development of a measurement instrument to measure the public science literacy and attitudes in evolution. Another set up a consortium to foster evolution education since kindergarten internationally. A further group relaunched Evolution Megalab 2.0, a European-wide citizen science project on the evolutionary biology of snails. Other groups came up with creative ways to visualise phylogenetic trees, immersive games on evolution, podcasts and storytelling of evolution, public outreach events in European metro stations.

Are you planning another meeting in the future?

EvoKE is a growing community and our members highlighted the need for another EvoKE meeting, most likely in 2019.

Interview: Alex Reis

Photo: The EvoKE team (left to right: Tania Jenkins, Kristin Jenkins, Héloise Dufour, Xana Sa Pinto - the team's fifth member, Inga Ubben, is missing)

Last Changes: 04.28.2017