In this holiday season, many individuals turn to their faith and pray for a peaceful and prosperous new year. But, as the saying goes, God helps those who help themselves. So, how can we help ourselves to move toward a peaceful and prosperous future? One that is also more just and equitable? Teach science. That’s right. Teach science early, teach science often, and teach science well.
To begin, we must push back against the current tide of science denial. “I am not a scientist, but. . .” is now as ubiquitous a phrase as “I am not a math person.” Both of these claims are based on misconceptions, and sentences that begin this way rarely end well. For example, “I am not a math person, and maybe neither are you.” First, “math people” are not born but made through hard work and help from great math teachers. No doubt, math comes easier to some of us, just as playing a musical instrument is easier for some. But no one became a virtuoso violinist or mathematician without great teaching and great effort.
“I am not a scientist, but. . .” implies a different misconception. The person who says this is about to state a personal opinion on a scientific issue of our day, such as whether humans are contributing to climate change, or GMO’s are dangerous, or vaccines cause autism. This assumes that all opinions are equally valid and therefore should be given equal weight. Therein lies the misconception. That is, a scientist’s view on a matter in her area of expertise is not a personal opinion but a professional opinion – a carefully considered evaluation of multiple lines of evidence drawing upon years of study and training. Unless you, citizen, have done the same (objectively weighted the scientific evidence regarding a topic — and this doesn’t mean considering what just happened to pop up in your Google search five minutes ago), then your opinion is only that — an opinion. People can hold any number of opinions; the world is flat, the Holocaust never happened, the moon landing was faked, … the list goes on and on. In my opinion, Thai food is far superior to Ethiopian. There, I’ve said it. That’s my opinion. Take it for what it’s worth. I’d advise you that if you are going to make a considered judgment of these two cuisines, you’d be far better off dining at both a Thai and an Ethiopian restaurant and judging for yourself than basing your perspective on my opinion. And it would be terribly foolish to base some sort of public policy (like, which foods were available in public schools) on my culinary opinions.
Saying “I’m not a scientist, but… I know that climate change is a hoax,” is even worse than an uninformed opinion; it constitutes a case of science denial. Science denial is not only based on fundamental misconceptions about the nature of science, but it is a form of anti-intellectualism. I recently made this argument in a Presidential Session at the 2015 American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting in Chicago. Denialists push back against the word “denial” and say they are just being rational skeptics who are careful not to jump on bandwagons. Skepticism does play a very crucial role in science. But denialists are not skeptics because denialists cannot be persuaded to change their views by the introduction of alternative facts and evidence. As an example, when asked what would it take to change his mind in the evolution debate against Bill Nye, Ken Ham replied, “nothing” would change his mind. By definition, a skeptic will change her mind in light of new evidence, so long as said evidence is of sufficient quality to be convincing. Denialists, by contrast, will not change their opinion despite the preponderance of evidence – they are already convinced.
But even if we do push back against science denial and anti-intellectualism, how does teaching science well and more often contribute to a more just, equitable, peaceful, and prosperous future? Science denial creates social injustice and inequity in at least two ways. First, when denialists push back against teaching science, fight against the implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and push to “teach the controversy” or “both sides” regarding evolution (or climate change), less actual science content is taught in school. This results in a widening of the knowledge and opportunity gap even further. How? Well, even if students from high-income households are not being taught science in school, they will still have plenty of opportunities to learn science from museum visits, summer camps, after-school enrichment programs, home tutoring, etc. Whereas low-income students will miss out if science education is not included in public school curricula and taught well to students of all economic backgrounds. Education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – what is known as the STEM disciplines – provides economic opportunity and social advancement for minorities (Melguzo et al. ). At the same time, diversity enhances STEM disciplines intellectually by bringing new perspectives and issues to light. This is the proverbial “win-win” scenario, and denialism obscures these opportunities.
Second, science denial has a differential impact on poor and disadvantaged communities. Just as it is well known that children who live near highways suffer from asthma and other negative health impacts, so too does climate change differentially affect those who cannot move away from sea level storm surges or escape inner-city heat islands. Some argue that climate change could threaten food supplies. Understanding that humans are biological beings related to our fellow organisms on this one and only planet that sustains us would us avoid such a catastrophe.
In our recent article on the Public Understanding of Science (Sinatra, Kienhus, & Hofer, 2014), we outlined some of the challenges members of the public have in understanding and accepting science. These include misconceptions, negative attitudes, and a lack of understanding of the nature of science. Fortunately, these challenges can be addressed and that would push back against the tide of denialism and anti-intellectualism. It is possible, if we all shared my New Year’s Resolution. Teach science well, teach science often, and teach science to everyone. Happy New Year.