So what? Why are you telling me this?


Joost van Kasteren


Freelance science writer

Scientists think that if only they could explain what they know, the public will see the light and all issues will be resolved. Time and again it has been shown that this ‘deficit model of science communication’ is not working. People are not automatically interested in what you want to tell them. They want to know why you are telling them that. It does not help either when you act like the ‘sage on the stage’ that wants to fill the knowledge vacuum in the head of the scientifically illiterate.

Still it is important that people know about evolution. Not only because it is such a beautiful unifying theory or because it is part of our cultural heritage. These arguments are probably not enough to get people really interested and involved. The main argument is that we now have the tools for sculpting evolution. CRISPR/Cas and other genetic editing technologies can be used to engineer the human germ line and literally change the common heritage of mankind. Also gene drives make it possible to fine-tune ecosystems to our needs by exterminating some species (like Anopheles) and promoting the fluffy species.

These ‘evolutionary technologies’ are shaping our future society. That is why it is important to have an on-going societal conversation – a debate if you like. Not a conversation that is narrowed down to the possible risks, as scientists tend to do. It turned the debate about genetically modified food into a ‘dialogue of the deaf’. What is needed is a conversation that addresses the hopes and fears of the public when confronted with evolutionary technologies. Even if some of these hopes and fears originate from pre-modern beliefs and taboos.

What little experience there is, shows that this type of two-way communication pays off. It does not convince all of the people all of the time, but it creates a common ground for discussion. Eventually that can lead to better and more widely supported policy decisions about research and its future applications.

Short biosketch here