Now that OPOWER is using social science to help us encourage our Facebook friends to save energy, I’ve become curious about the role of social circles in environmentalism. Do environmental values diffuse socially into the larger community? And, if they do, how can one accelerate that process?

Eco-friendly choices aren’t the only kind of behavior that may be contagious. Weight loss studies imply that people both adjust their size to match their friends and cluster socially based on their weight. The book The Social Animal says people not only mirror the facial expressions of their families, but subtly seek out partners and friends who mirror their own appearances and values. This mirroring and filtering process is both subtle and continuous.

Advertising encourages us to use product choices to express ourselves – thereby showing our values, interests and character to potential coworkers, friends and partners. Even being “real” – for example, going without makeup – can be a statement. So can environmental decisions.

Including social circles in one’s perspective can lead to intriguing questions about environmentalism. How do environmentalists find each other? If environmentalists cluster too closely, will our innovations diffuse into the rest of society? On the other hand, if we spread out into a dispersed community, will we still be able to change the culture around us? If we want our social norms to catch on, what should we do? Should we try to reach a critical mass? Should we look for tipping points?

Reading Unscientific America was an eerie experience for me. This book is more disturbing than most of the news I read online.

What bothered me most wasn’t the waning support for science research and science journalism. It wasn’t the social distance separating scientists from most people in the United States, either… although that is part of the problem.

Because of my experience writing about diversity and science, I took the ideas a step further and reached a disturbing conclusion. When they avoid communication, outreach and interdisciplinary thinking, science organizations may be unintentionally and effectively excluding a very large fraction of the population: women and people of color.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some minority-serving universities in the United States base 20 percent of science professors’ tenure evaluations on community service. At other universities, that expectation would be unusual.

Some research says women turn away from science majors because they don’t believe scientists help people. This stereotype isn’t true; anyone who watches TV shows like ER or CSI will see science majors saving lives.

Image of a man with a laptop
Science doesn't necessarily look like this.

If the dominant message says scientists don’t care about the rest of the public, that could contribute to public apathy about science funding. The authors of Unscientific America make a persuasive argument that we should train scientists to do outreach – and fund full-time jobs for them in that field later.

Here is the message I’m concerned could be countering attempts to diversify the science workforce:

If you enjoy communicating or want to contribute to your community, don’t choose a science major.

I blog about the personal, everyday relevance of science because I know these stereotypes don’t reflect reality. In one new industry – green technology – there are signs that women are taking an interest in science because they see their work as a social contribution.

Science is everywhere. It is relevant. It changes the world around us all the time. Science is everyone’s story.

Because I’m interested in starting conversations that help people reach beyond their usual social circles, I’ve been thinking about ways to change how groups interact.

I’m inviting people to comment here with ideas and resources.

What are some strategies you use for making online and offline conversations more welcoming and less polarized? 

At what point can one say one’s addicted to reading a website? I contemplated this last night while paging through Sociological Images, a site which published an article on food deserts six days ago. The article opens with a blotchy map of the United States (shown below). The red and brown spots show locations where over five percent of the population is living without a car and is more than a mile away from the nearest supermarket.

Map of food deserts in the United States

This graphic shows lack of access to supermarkets impacts large numbers of people, especially in southern states. In contrast, Wyoming – a state which I drove through twice without seeing a single supermarket – is in much better shape. Is this because people in Wyoming are more likely to own cars than people in Tennessee are? It’s hard to say without more information.

When we do have access to groceries, what are we buying? An earlier article from the same website shows regional differences in meat, vegetable, fruit, soda and fast food purchases. California is especially interesting; areas of high meat consumption alternate with areas of almost no meat consumption. In Texas, there’s an area near the border where people are buying large amounts of produce.

The graphic also shows people in eastern Massachusetts, where I live, aren’t shopping for any of these products very often. Maybe we are eating pasta, fish or cheese instead. It’s a mystery.