Who's telling me this? How do they know it? What are they trying to sell
May 19, 2022 12:18 PM   Subscribe

Science Education in an Age of Misinformation, a 51 page report (pdf). Co-author Carl Bergstrom summarizes in a Twitter thread: [Science] textbooks largely traffic in certainties—the settled "facts" of last year's science. This can be terribly disorienting when science-in-the-making is suddenly thrust into public view by ongoing events... Students need to know about how scientists manage uncertainty.

We teach our students what scientists found, but we don't teach them enough about the social context of science for them to be able to evaluate scientific claims or have confidence in the scientific process.

posted by spamandkimchi (29 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Arguably, a bigger problem is that - and I was thinking about this earlier in the week, as I walked around my DC neighborhood + saw multiple "WE BELIEVE IN SCIENCE" yard signs - society is just not a rational enterprise. Fear, tribalism, superstition - all of these things will always be much more powerful in a mass cultural sense than empirical reasoning, no matter what we do or say. This is most likely the central, fatal mistake of liberalism.

More and more, I think what we need is not science, or reason, but a more benign, spooky, nature-oriented thinking that appeals to powerfully to the loins and the lizard brain. To pleasure, since there is really no chance of science or logic as they're being thought about here having any long term, directional impact on human affairs.
posted by ryanshepard at 12:49 PM on May 19 [6 favorites]

The bottom line: if people don't understand the social process of science, if they don't realize uncertainty prevails for some period, if they don't understand the nature of scientific consensus and why it tends to be reliable, they'll be hugely vulnerable to disinformation.

Ok but my observation throughout this is not only do people not understand the social dynamics of science, nobody even picked up any of the science dynamics of science, like - what is a virus? What does it do? How does it work? I learned the basics in biology class & nothing I've learned about Covid has ever been surprising to me based on that. But it's like, this was all a big surprise to everyone else. It might as well have been an alien species for how unaware everyone was of what should be done. It's not just that we're not teaching the big picture it's that *nothing has even gotten through*, none of it, not one bit. Maybe ryanshepard is right, the project of teaching science hasn't worked, what else can we do instead.
posted by bleep at 1:49 PM on May 19 [10 favorites]

It is very unfashionable to teach facts, bleep, so perhaps we have not failed as much as we have not tried.

Less "teaching how to think" hand-waving, more "this is a virus and how it works" facts, maybe?
posted by Comfy Shoes at 2:40 PM on May 19 [2 favorites]

But I mean, I learned it in school, it was in the curriculum, I didn't go off & find it out on my own... I don't remember the exact content of the AP Bio test & the state Regents test but they weren't easy for me to pass, they had all kinds of things on them that apparently no one remembers. What was the point of all that?
posted by bleep at 2:44 PM on May 19 [7 favorites]

Interesting. I've not entirely digested the whole thing yet, but it seems quite thoughtful. Thanks!

I spend a lot of time in every non-majors college class I teach emphasizing that "how we know" is more important than "what we know." (A phrase I think I stole from someone who probably stole it from someone at the Alan Alda Center.) And the students seem excited about that. . . until I refuse to give them the answers to problems during office hours. That every possible incentive when teaching goes in the opposite direction is a real problem. I'm a very smiley person who looks more or less like a '60s cartoon drawing of a professor and even I get angry student evaluations for not just giving away the answers and making them actually solve problems. Other teachers get it far, far worse. There is no mechanism that I know of, at least at most fancy colleges, to actually recognize teaching innovation in a meaningful way. It only hurts your career to try to be a better teacher. I imagine k-12 is worse.
For example, are they a fellow of a recognized scientific body, or have they won an award for their scientific work?
This seems a little bit dangerous. I can immediately think of two Nobel prize winners whose beliefs about things in their own fields are absolute batshit and know a lot of brilliant people who switched fields after a postdoc but have more informed opinions than the leaders of the professional orgs I belong to. (Though, we're pretty lucky to have quite good ones now and next.) Maybe it's not a terrible rule of thumb, at least for journalists. Getting a second and third opinion sure would cut out a lot of the garbage that we get fed in the media. But, that takes time and money.

[Disclaimer: I'd call a couple of the authors of this friends, which might bias my reading.]
posted by eotvos at 2:58 PM on May 19 [16 favorites]

Part of the challenge is that while science deals in facts a lot of its truths rest on a dynamic consensus; at its heart it is deeply relational, and holds a lot of uncertainty. Learning how to do relational living at scale is also a huge part of what we need to do to survive as a species, so it’s pretty critical work across the board!
posted by wemayfreeze at 3:12 PM on May 19 [1 favorite]

That's why student internships are so important. My interns get plenty of uncertainty.

[But they also get to feel the excitement of science!]
posted by acrasis at 4:00 PM on May 19 [1 favorite]

I'm not even sure I want to know what K-12 is like today. Somehow I get the feeling that they're no longer doing chemistry experiments with dangerous chemicals in groups of two, or dissecting small animals, or doing physics labs involving high voltage electricity, or listing to a history teacher go bell to bell just standing there recounting the past from memory. We pretty much learned all about uncertainty by having to replicate things ourselves back then. Somehow the past 30-40 years has turned school into a bunch of ill-advised people.
posted by zengargoyle at 4:57 PM on May 19

Somehow the past 30-40 years has turned school into a bunch of ill-advised people.

I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that school is not the major thing ill-advising people over the last 30-40 years.
posted by mhoye at 5:11 PM on May 19 [10 favorites]

I’m really looking forward to reading this. While there’s a certain level of cynicism among some people I know that makes me want to BURN THINGS (for example, believing at least in part, that people fight for social justice in order to gain and exert power over others that has been used to oppress them - this idea is ANTHEMA to me), the idea of cui bono is a fundamental question in *every discipline*. Here I stand in front of a beautiful artwork in a museum: who benefits? Here I am reading a news story that makes me feel anxious and afraid: who benefits? Thank you for sharing, spamandkimchi.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 5:14 PM on May 19 [1 favorite]

I taught elementary science for ten years (in a private school, so I could get away with pretty much whatever I wanted). My biggest peeve was "labs" that were just activities that didn't actually illustrate what they were supposed to, and my second biggest peeve was that the actual content in each chapter was minuscule. The more I researched the content in those commercially-published chapters, the more I felt as if we were misleading the children.

I ended up writing my own online text. In addition to creating activities that actually showed a scientific principle at work, I made my fifth graders find a science article every week. Kids would find things in all kinds of publications. We argued a lot.

Honestly, I don't think I made a whole lot of difference. But having grown up in a family of scientists, I knew the picture was a lot more complicated than what was being sold.

I confess that I also taught English for even longer, though my bachelor's was in art, because private school.
posted by Peach at 5:23 PM on May 19 [9 favorites]

I continue to be thankful that I had an old, crabby professor of ACCOUNTING who insisted that, as part of the final year course he taught, we consider the PHILOSOPHY of knowledge, science and experiment, and insisted we become familiar with Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper. That was 40 years ago

I was delighted that as part of my MBA, we had a course on the philosophy of management, which re-introduced Kuhn and Popper, against the screeches of protest from the engineers and lawyers. That was 35 years ago.

Those courses were HARD - they were hard for the people who didn't like the material and they were hard for the people who did like the material. So I understand why it is not popular - but I am resolute in my opinion that is incredibly important.
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 5:40 PM on May 19 [11 favorites]


That one always cracked me up because the whole point is you don't have to, it proves itself, it has to, until it can prove an even better understanding of what's going on.

We weren't allowed to be taught evolution when I was in school, our teacher had to bend over backwards to teach it in a really obtuse way. Wound up looking it up online to get a better idea about it, got some books later because it's definitely one of those most interesting things in science to read into from the outside.

Supplementing my shitty texas public school education with wikipedia and the internet became a pretty common practice, which was easier than digging through encyclopedias in the library for sure. The internet landscape was very different back then, still needed to be wary of faulty information, but it wasn't the refined well-oiled disinfo machine we have today. Schools suck at media literacy even when we just had newspapers, magazines & TV ("don't believe everything you see on TV" was the extent of it really) to worry about.
posted by GoblinHoney at 6:14 PM on May 19 [7 favorites]

My high school chemistry teacher had a sign in her classroom which said,
Answers: $1
Correct answers: $5
Answers which require thought: $20
which I always though was at least as good an explanation of the connection between science, epistemology, and value as the actual content of her class.

(I have since seen copies of this sign which say “dumb looks are free” at the bottom, which changes the sense of the sign a little.)
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 7:35 PM on May 19 [1 favorite]

I got interviewed when I was fourteen as to whether I believed in evolution by the local news, actually--this was Kansas City in about 2005, on the Kansas side of the border, so there was quite a lot of... controversy... swirling around at the time. I have never forgotten how my teacher, who had written our biology textbook, handled the topic: a little impatiently, but kindly, he pointed out that evolution was not in argument with anyone's religion and walked students through the evidence from a variety of--oh. oh!

When I Googled his name to see if he'd been doing anything recently, I found this PBS blurb, which--in retrospect surprises me not at all, but I do feel pretty honored looking up my teacher's legacy. Gosh, I've found a lot of bits where he took a stand publicly for science-guided best practices over the last fifteen years. I ought to write to him if I can find an email address, assuming he's still alive. One of the things I learned from him--and a lot of other people, down the line--was how to meet people where they are when teaching about science, looking for ways to hook folks' interest and tie into things they care about as I explain how things fit together.

My partner is currently taking a bridge BSN nursing program, and one of the classes currently going is intended to encourage the nurses to learn how to read the literature to evaluate up evidence-based practices that they can use in their day to day work. Except... the course is painfully formal, insists on passive voice on everything, and is far more concerned about the trappings of the literature it supports than it is showing students how to rip through a paper and pull the most important pieces to hand quickly. And that squares with a lot of the ways that I see people teaching science, both in educational settings and even sometimes in public-outreach-oriented ones: science is a formal repository of answers, not a process in which people are constantly arguing and pushing at to try and yield new information--through which they are frequently wrong or even quite silly!

Science is so messy, and so often it's so full of stupid mistakes that seem quite avoidable once you understand how they happen. Watching science literacy grapple with the reality of COVID, and the challenge of figuring out how to communicate complex concepts on the fly to a public who suddenly cares quite a lot more than at any time previously, has been a real education. And--the other thing about teaching the process of science is that it will humble and often humiliate you if you get too invested in your own authority. To teach that complexity well, you have to be able to control yourself to provide a certain air of comfort with uncertainty and discomfort, and that is quite difficult to do in a class while still maintaining the level of certainty and brisk deliberation that is required to keep control of the class and move everyone along on track. I wish that skill was more common, or that it was more frequently deliberately taught.
posted by sciatrix at 8:26 PM on May 19 [11 favorites]

If you ask most biology students - those in the bible-belt of the USA possible exceptions - if they believe in evolution they will say Yes, of course without the least blush of shame that 'belief' is a disturbingly religious word . . . they are not qualified to assert such a belief because they don't have a coherent bank of evidence to back that belief.

The final year honours Evolution course I taught in the Genetics Dept at U Newcastle upon Tyne was a whistle-stop tour marshalling the evidence for evolution a) as Darwin knew it and b) as subsequent developments, like Mendelian genetics, had added to and fleshed out that evidence. I filled out the Evolution course with nifty anecdotes about the recurrent pharyngeal nerve and Slijper's goat, rather than sticking strictly to genetics. I was driven to develop, write and deliver that course because one of our students, a biblical fundamentalist [Plymouth Brethren?] asked me to recommend a book on evolution that she could present at her church's monthly book club. I was completely wrong-footed by this request because, although I could think of a few books, I couldn't there and then convince this young woman that evolution was a better explanation of the marvellous diversity of life than God's Grandeur. And this was just a couple of years after I'd taken BI504-Evolution sitting at the feet of Lynn Margulis in graduate school. Shame on me!

Every year, students complained that *this* wasn't genetics and often mitched class. But each year, one or two of them got it [1]. Specialization is for insects: you can't understand, let alone explain, evolution unless you know some biogeography, some embryology & development, some taxonomy and comparative anatomy, some geology . . . and some genetics helps too. If you have spent the last 20 years studying mutations in the upstream control region of a single gene in Bacillus subtilis, you're not going to do well in a TV debate with an intelligent designist.

[1] 30 years later, I got a contact from one of these true believers through LinkedIn: he'd had a near death experience on a buckety small plane trip in California and resolved to thank a few people in his back-story if he ever landed alive. That was nice.
posted by BobTheScientist at 12:34 AM on May 20 [7 favorites]

But I mean, I learned it in school, it was in the curriculum, I didn't go off & find it out on my own... I don't remember the exact content of the AP Bio test & the state Regents test but they weren't easy for me to pass, they had all kinds of things on them that apparently no one remembers. What was the point of all that?

The number of things that people earnestly and angrily assure me ought to be taught in school, that I first learned about in school is very high. Mostly these are things in history, but some are in science. The only thing people regularly mention that I think wasn't actually introduced in my school was personal finance.

It strongly makes me think that teaching it in school is not the answer. It may help, but it's not the answer. TV shows and films and news articles with reasonably accurate science is probably closer to the answer.
posted by plonkee at 1:14 AM on May 20 [1 favorite]

I'm looking forward to reading this-- thanks for posting. Teaching process is necessary for all fields.
posted by travertina at 6:50 AM on May 20

Answers: $1
Correct answers: $5
Answers which require thought: $20
This is funny and I'd never seen it before. Thanks! To beanplate, though, I think if I were charging students, I'd be very tempted to reverse the order. "Answers" are bad pedagogy and boring for me. "Answers which require thought" are a lot more useful and also genuinely fun for me. I'd pay the students for well-formulated questions that I can't answer.
posted by eotvos at 7:52 AM on May 20 [1 favorite]

Did anyone else have a science teacher who had the class do an experiment and document the results but gave intentionally incorrect ranges for the expected results? The real experiment was to see who would report their results as observed and who would fudge the results to match what was expected. The real lesson was that all science is performed by people and people have complex motives that don't always align with the dispassionate reporting and interpretation of data, especially if we think that doing so will have a negative impact on us socially.
posted by metaphorever at 8:58 AM on May 20 [8 favorites]

Did anyone else have a science teacher who had the class do an experiment and document the results but gave intentionally incorrect ranges for the expected results?
Aside from "intentionally," I've done that to students within the last year. I can't decide whether or not it was actually good. It was really frustrating for those trying to get the "right" answer; however, I the discussion of it later was good. (I didn't write the lab nor run it. I am guilty of not paying enough attention to it.) Doing it intentionally is interesting. I'm not entirely sure how to reconcile how intriguing the idea is with a commitment never to lie to students. Perhaps if you tell them ahead of time that you will be lying at least once and why, it's better.
posted by eotvos at 9:33 AM on May 20 [1 favorite]

My first thought is to structure it as a contingency - "if your measured result is between X and Y, continue to the next step; if it's outside this range, call the teacher over and ask what to do next", perhaps? But I'm not a teacher and don't have any particular knowledge on how well that would work.
posted by NMcCoy at 12:06 PM on May 20

I don't remember the exact content of the AP Bio test & the state Regents test but they weren't easy for me to pass, they had all kinds of things on them that apparently no one remembers. What was the point of all that?

One essay question I remember from the AP Bio exam involved reasoning through a problem about indirectly measuring sugar concentrations in solution. This was less about sugars and their biological significance, and more about empirical reasoning and how to solve a problem in a biochemical setting. I don't remember much else from that class, but I do remember that question. This kind of thinking was not taught in biology or chemistry to any significant degree.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 3:48 PM on May 20 [1 favorite]

a book on evolution that she could present at her church's monthly book club

Perhaps something written by a Christian believer who struggled with it himself? Charles Darwin, maybe?

I’m sure you thought of that - is he personally anathema, or is the prose too long and difficult?
posted by clew at 8:00 PM on May 20

In high school I took a year long physics course recently redesigned from the ground up by the Physical Sciences Study Committee and which was heavily oriented toward in-class experiments. We sat at lab benches shared with three other kids instead of desks.

Near the end of the second semester, each of the 8 benches attempted to measure the mass of the electron using a calibrated power supply with an ammeter and a standardized solenoid which fit over a vacuum tube with a horizontal zinc sulfide plate that glowed a bright green when electrons hit it.

The idea was to measure the changing diameter of partial circle patterns on the plate which revealed the trajectories of electrons in the tube as the current to the solenoid went up and down, and plug those diameters into equations which would yield the mass of the electron.

But the circles were small and the tubes were several inches down inside the solenoids, and I had no confidence in my ability to eyeball the diameters of the partial circles, so I suggested using the sharp points of our compasses to cut out a bunch of small paper disks we could put a pin through and lower down into the solenoid on pins to get a best fit, and then measure the diameter of the disks.

This seemed to work great and was much faster than what the other groups were doing, so we were generating lots of data, but then it occurred to me the pins were steel, and might be messing with the magnetic field inside the solenoid, but when we tested that by lowering naked pins no one could see an effect.

Then we calculated the results, and my group was excited because they thought (I wasn’t so sure) that our method was better.

When we compared results and found out what the true mass of the electron was, all of the other seven groups were within +/- 5% of the actual mass of the electron, but we were barely within +/- 90%, because our value was about 12% of the actual mass.

My benchmates looked absolutely stricken, and I felt very sorry for misleading them, but at the same time the whole thing struck me as extremely funny, and there was an uncomfortably long interval where I laughed my ass off in an otherwise silent classroom as the rest of the class stared at me, and the teacher glared at me like he wanted to wring my neck.

Somehow, we never got around to discussing the results of that experiment.
posted by jamjam at 9:36 PM on May 20 [1 favorite]

To beanplate, though, I think if I were charging students, I'd be very tempted to reverse the order.
A hot-air balloonist has been blown off course. She lowers her altitude until she is within earshot of someone standing on the ground. “Can you tell me where I am am?” she shouts. The man on the ground gives her a five-dollar correct answer: “You’re in a balloon!”

I always thought part of the joke was that useful answers are included in the price of tuition.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 4:35 AM on May 22 [1 favorite]

Did anyone else have a science teacher who had the class do an experiment and document the results but gave intentionally incorrect ranges for the expected results?

Modern scientific pedagogy is much more focused on actually doing actual science in class, which means there are not necessarily "correct ranges for the expected results" because we only have vague ideas of what's "expected" because we haven't done the study yet. The most common acronym is CURE (course-based undergraduate research experience).

My favorite examples are from the Ecological Research as Education Network. My intro biology students the past few semesters have participated in the Lichens in Diverse Landscapes Project.

My Ecology class is taught almost entirely this way. Students go outside and make observations, read some literature, and come up with their own hypotheses. Then we work together to design and execute a study to test their hypotheses (including selecting the right statistical methods). It is much more work for them and me. Sometimes things go horribly wrong. Sometimes, they find something really cool. Occasionally, we can't find a previous study that has seen anything quite like that. Often, we find no significant results. That's science.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:14 AM on May 22 [2 favorites]

I must be old. As a counterexample, the lab portion of an organic chemistry class I took long ago required students to synthesize compounds to some level of purity. We were doing empirical science (where there were expected/correct results) and percentage yields outside that expected range of purity would lead to one's grade being docked points.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 2:36 PM on May 22

My o chem classes were the same way TSHBO. I vaguely remember doig melting points as well as NMR on samples. Then I got smart and quit premed and went to psych.
posted by kathrynm at 9:51 AM on May 23

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