Science Communication in Crisis (Part 3): Solutions
To say that the general public’s penchant for credulity and gullibility is dangerous is no overstatement. If our country as a whole is to continue functioning properly, let alone to flourish and progress, the general public must become much better at critical thinking than they are now. Critical thinking must be insisted upon by university professors of all academic disciplines, not just in the hard sciences. That is, students must be obliged to support what they write with solid evidence and reasoned arguments. Most professors, especially those in English departments, do not insist on such a standard and do not care how or why their students think the way they do. We need a greater commitment on the part of the entire academic community to teach people how to think, not what to think.
Of particular urgency is enabling young people to think critically. Older people, middle-aged and above, generally tend to have their ideas already firmly formulated and established. Younger people by contrast are still in the process of formulating their ideas and impressions and still learning how to think. Still, if academics in the teaching profession can get people of all ages to develop and apply critical thinking skills, perhaps the rest will take care of itself.
The three solutions I propose below are broad in scope and have reference to overcoming the barriers to science communication surveyed above.
1. Teach Philosophy of Science before High School
Students should not be blind to what science is and how it works when they enter high school and start learning subjects like biology and chemistry. They should be introduced to the philosophy of science (what science is and what it is not) as early as the fourth or fifth grade before they are start learning the specifics of biology and evolution. Once students have been given a solid grounding in the philosophy of science, they are better prepared to grasp the specifics, navigated within the larger context of what we know, what we do not know, and what science is still working on figuring out. I propose that a single semester course devoted to teaching the basics of critical thinking and the philosophy of science from a global perspective would serve to build up students’ interest in the more specialized fields. Courses in biology, chemistry, geology and physics at the high school level is then and only then in a good position to stick to the subject at hand, communicating to students the knowledge of what we know based on well-established science.
Unfortunately, very few high schools in America teach the Scientific Method in a clear manner, if at all. This is largely a consequence of the fact that high school students generally have no background in philosophy of science. It is also due to the fact that very few practicing scientists are involved in designing curriculum. When high school students perform experiments in class, it is usually geared toward a preconceived conclusion. This is exactly the wrong way to teach science, regardless of how well established and confirmed the results of the in-class experiments have become in science laboratories operated by professionals. Too often the question posed to students by high school science teachers is a variation of “How is this experiment supposed to turn out?” This approach is directly opposed to the Scientific Method. Instilling in young people an appreciation of the Scientific Method means teaching them to ask deeper questions: Why and how have scientists arrived at x conclusion? What was the initial hypothesis, and what did the scientist’s observations and experimentation say about that hypothesis?
When high school students are taught that their classroom experiments are “supposed” to conform to predetermined expectations, educators fail to help them understand why scientists perform experiments in the first place. A scientist may set out upon her experimental investigations with a hypothesis in mind, only to discover that all of the data from the experiment indicates the exact opposite. To be a real scientist, one must be open to the possibility of being completely wrong, not only about easily-revisable hypotheses, but also about fully-built theories. With this humility comes the realization that scientists in one laboratory might come to one conclusion, while another lab in another part of the world publishes a paper that shows that conclusion to be completely wrong. Science is a collaborative endeavor; through the rigorous process of peer review, scientists must always double-check their results against those of their colleagues. One mark of a good scientist is wariness of one’s own conclusions and an understanding that every result is preliminary. No scientist is immune from being proven wrong tomorrow or from being shown up by the offering of a better explanation from a colleague.
2. Make Science Interesting
Two emphases are crucial for successful science education: (1) how science applies to the real world and (2) how the various fields of science fit and work together. Most high school science classes offer little more than catalogues of dry and disconnected facts rather than a functional body of knowledge. Science builds incrementally upon itself; students need to understand the ways in which it is useful to have scientific knowledge. Students learn better when educators provide a diverse mix of subjects in such a way that their charges are shown how the various subjects and fields feed off and contribute to each other, rather than teaching one subject in complete isolation before moving on to the next. As the late humanist philosopher and skeptic Paul Kurtz notes in his great book The Transcendental Temptation,
Educators have not adequately explained science as a great adventure in learning; nor have they succeeded in developing an appreciation for the scientific method: the appeal to evidence and logical criteria in judging hypotheses, the tentative and hypothetical character of knowing, the skeptical attitude, the use of reflective intelligence as a way of solving problems. . . . [T]he emphasis must not be simply upon science as a static body of knowledge but rather as a method of understanding and modifying the natural and cultural world .
The need for a pragmatic and integrative approach to knowledge applies to all subjects in education, not just science. But it is in the science classroom that the lack of such an integrative method is most conspicuous and therefore the place where its implementation is most needed.
For example, when middle school and high school students are not taught about evolution in biology class, they are being provided with only a superficial understanding of the life sciences. Evolution is the basic unifying principle of all biology. As the late geneticist and evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously remarked, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” . Studying biology without a knowledge or understanding of evolution is like trying to study chemistry without understanding atomic theory. If students are not provided an understanding of evolution, they will fail to see the connections underlying all interactions between organisms. When evolutionary theory is absent from science classrooms, all that is left for students to digest is a laundry list of information and a dry catalogue of facts. An understanding of evolution allows students to learn how different organisms are related and how various organs, functions and behaviors changed over time. The study of organs like the heart is far more interesting when it is discussed from an evolutionary perspective as opposed to simply throwing out the fact that the heart is a blood-pumping machine and moving on to the next bit of trivia.
The general lack of ongoing instruction in how the various fields of science fit together is a large part of the reason many high school and college students find science to be dry and boring. Too often the mode in which it is presented in the classroom is disconnected from any application to the real world and the objects of everyday life. In his bestselling 1985 memoir “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” the late great physicist Richard Feynman recounts a story that wonderfully illustrates how educators can effectively communicate science by making it relevant to students’ everyday experience. Feynman writes about his experience traveling to Brazil to be a guest-lecturer in a university-level course on electricity and magnetism. In one lecture he discussed polarized light:
We first took two strips of polaroid and rotated them until they let the most light through. From doing that we could tell that the two strips were now admitting light polarized in the same direction – what passed through one piece of polaroid could also pass through the other. But then I asked them how one could tell the absolute direction of polarization, from a single piece of polaroid.
They hadn’t any idea.
I knew this took a certain amount of ingenuity, so I gave them a hint: “Look at the light reflected from the bay outside” .
Feynman goes on to say that his students still said nothing. Then he asked them, “Have you ever heard of Brewster’s Angle?” To his surprise, the students responded by correctly reciting that particular equation from memory. “They even knew the tangent of the angle equals the index!” he recalls in amazement. Then Feynman redirected their attention to the light reflected on the bay outside. The students still said nothing as they looked out the windows through pieces of polaroid. Feynman then drives the point home:
After a lot of investigation, I finally figured out that the students had memorized everything, but they didn’t know what anything meant. When they heard “light that is reflected from a medium with an index,” they didn’t know that it meant a material such as water. They didn’t know that the “direction of the light” is the direction in which you see something when you’re looking at it, and so on. Everything was entirely memorized, yet nothing had been translated into meaningful words. So if I asked, “What is Brewster’s Angle?” I’m going into the computer with the right keywords. But if I say, “Look at the water,” nothing happens – they don’t have anything under “Look at the water!” 
Translating the findings and principles of science and mathematics into meaningful and compelling words should be the goal of all science communicators who take on the task of educating the general public. There are all sorts of ways to go about doing this work of translation. For example, there are many people who lack even a basic grasp of or interest in statistics and the mathematics of probability but do have a strong interest in gambling. Educators can make the subject of mathematics very interesting to such people by talking about the applications and connections between mathematics and blackjack . The popular Discovery Channel show Mythbusters is an excellent example of this “translation” principle in action. In each episode, show hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman apply the scientific method to their examination of popular myths, rumors, urban legends, folk wisdom, Internet videos and more in order to test their validity and confirm or falsify the claims associated with them. Many people who will never crack open a textbook on physics or engineering have nevertheless been learning something about science from this show, which appeals to popular-level interests. Mythbusters is “stealth science” at its best.
3. Reframe Critical Thinking
In addition to the problems so far discussed on the middle school and high school science front – or perhaps because of them – relatively few students nowadays continue to study science in higher education. Other than reforming high school science standards and approaches, how might science education proponents get more students to pursue science in the long-term? Perhaps the answer lies not in the science classroom itself, but in the academic curriculum of other subjects. It is never too early to start this “nudging” process, and there should be a push among educators to add something to primary education to achieve this end. Much progress would be made if even a single, semester-long course introducing logic were included in early education. An “Introduction to Logic” course at elementary and middle-school levels would go a long way in teaching children how to think instead of what to think, and the principles and tools learned can then be applied in other courses. In fact, a separate course in logic may not even be necessary; simply incorporating logic in other courses would suffice.
Unfortunately, the religious and conservative establishment in America would not like this plan one bit. They do not want people to question or think for themselves, especially not children. But educators need not necessarily teach students to question or doubt religion in an explicit way. As a strategy to bypass the obstacles to progress erected by the religious and conservative lobby, educators can simply opt to teach students the importance of questioning other things besides religion. Critical scrutiny is a method and a learned skill, not a subject in and of itself. If we successfully instill the importance and value of doubt and the necessity of critical thinking in children and teenagers, they will inevitably question religion on their own if and when they find themselves in contexts where the subject of religion presents itself. And this is a good thing.
One of the barriers to educational progress is the politicization with which the terms “critical thinking” and “skepticism” have been wrapped. Even if freethinkers and progressives use a different term to describe critical thinking, anything resembling free inquiry is immediately looked upon with suspicion by religious and conservative parents and other authority figures. They may view the act of introducing children to critical thinking as an attempt to undermine their own unexamined religious claims and to highlight the weaknesses of traditional beliefs.
Unfortunately, this is likely a largely unrecognized reason critical thinking is not taught in most schools. It is also the reason many religious parents opt to homeschool their children. They do not want their children to be exposed to any ideas that differ from their religious beliefs. Then, when the time comes for homeschooled young people to attend college, the parents will often send them to a privately-funded fundamentalist Christian college, of the kind attended by those who go on to become lawyers hired by Pat Robertson’s family .
It is a shame that progressives in American society may have to, for lack of a better word, “smuggle” good education into public education from behind a screen so that politically-influential religious conservatives will not shoot down the needed reforms. But to this we may well have to resort. By subtly and quietly introducing quality science education into public schools, the hope of progressives would be that students find their own way toward developing a questioning disposition, toward inquiry into the claims made by the “sacred cows” of the world such as religion. For example, we can smuggle critical thinking and rationality into a very basic geometry course by not only teaching that “the angle of incidence is equal to the angle of reflection,” but also going beyond this basic lesson in geometric optics by asking the students how this scientific law can apply in other situations beyond the geometry classroom.
Pursuant to seeing this healthy attitude in students of all ages, we progressives may have to concoct our own “wedge strategy” similar to the one adopted by the Intelligent Design (ID) movement in their efforts to do away with the Constitution and with established scientific facts by introducing creationism into public schools . The important difference is that with this “wedge strategy,” pro-science and pro-Constitution progressives would be giving students the tools to apply critical thinking on their own instead of telling them what to think and believe, as the ID creationists want to do.
Fortunately, there are plenty of reform-minded individuals and groups working to change this faulty approach, and they are to be applauded and supported in their efforts. But the process they are enduring in order to effect change is much tougher than it should be. This is obviously a very complicated issue with no easy fix. It is a problem whose solution requires more than just throwing more resources at the educational establishment. This is not to say that we do not need more resources, because we do. But educators also need to take a more thoughtful approach. This means looking at the research available, especially from other countries whose quality of education far surpasses our own, on what works best and adopting an evidence-based approach to improve the quality of scientific communication.