The social contract of science education

I had occasion this week to read the Pew Research Center’s 2015 reports “Public and scientists’ views on science and policy, ” and a follow-up, “An elaboration of AAAS scientists’ views.”  Got me to thinking about the work of science education, and how our society (the US for sure, and probably elsewhere) is a multiculture with respect to science.

The Pew study ask about a range of topics, from specific (e.g. views on vaccination, fracking, or evolution) to more general, policy-level questions (e.g. how US science ranks in comparison to other countries’, whether government investments in science are worth it).  The analysis disaggregates the data according to various demographics;  the “elaboration” disaggregates responding scientists into “working PhD scientists,” “active researchers,” and (with respect to specific questions) “domain experts.”

Interestingly, the various sub-groups of scientists tended mostly to agree, with occasional sub-group divergence — for example, on the desirability of fracking, 47% of “working engineers” approved, while only 38% of “working earth scientists” did.

For science educators, though, the most interesting differences may be the gap between the opinions of scientists as a group, and the general public.  Some special points of interest:

A. Fifty-four percent of the general public believes that US science is “best in the world”; 34% see it as “average.”  Scientists have an even more positive view:  92% see it as “best in the world,” and another 6% see it as “average.” (Hard to know how “best” is measured, of course.)

B.  On three big topics, the public disbelieves that there is a consensus view among scientists, the 3 being the Big Bang (52% believe scientists are divided), climate change (37%), and evolution (29%)  (The actual figures are considerably higher, e.g. evolution 98%, climate change at least 87%).    This divergence is of great interest, because there’s so much sociology involved. Evolution controversies have persisted since Darwin, and  the imputation of disagreement among scientists has been an important weapon in the arsenal of creationist rhetoric.  The Big Bang theory resembles evolution, in that it replaces a biblical account of “origins” with one relying on natural causes only;  in this case, too, disagreement among scientists is desirable in the eyes of opponents.

The same goes for climate change, of course.  Moreover, the creation of doubt about the science and scientists of climate change has been the aim of a well-documented disinformation campaign over many years.  Yet Pew shows that scientists as a group are seen as more trustworthy than any other group in public life, except the military.   At least one study (Ping et al 2015) provided evidence that when people who disbelieved in human-caused climate change are told the actual extent of scientific agreement about it, that information results in a measurable reduction in “skepticism” or denial.  (I know of no comparable study about public attitudes about the Big Bang or evolution.)   This obviously has potential importance in the effort to mitigate or adapt to climate change.

C. Opinions on the quality of US STEM ed are also interestingly divergent.  Among the general population, 29% see it as “best in the world,” 39% see it as “average,” and 29% see it as below the international average.  Scientists are more negative:  16% see it as “best,” 38% as average, and 46% as below average.

Other studies over the years have shown a high public interest in science topics, so the basic picture is, “We are interested in science, and US science is really good, but we are cautious about accepting guidance from scientists, and we aren’t really satisfied with our STEM education.

The disjunct around specific issues often relates to the ways in which scientific research intersects with other values, all within the context of an anxiety-provoking (post)modernity. I myself am quite clear that science is not the only tool we must use to make our way forward in the world, yet it is a powerful one which can provide an effective approach to many questions both natural and cultural.  To quote Dewey:

Science represents the fruition of the cognitive factors in experience. Instead of contenting itself with a mere statement of what commends itself to personal or customary experience, it aims at a statement which will reveal the sources, grounds, and consequences of a belief.,,,The function which science has to perform in the curriculum is that which it has performed for the race: emancipation from local and temporary incidents of experience, and the opening of intellectual vistas unobscured by the accidents of personal habit and predilection… In emancipating an idea from the particular context in which it originated and giving it a wider reference the results of the experience of any individual are put at the disposal of all men. Thus ultimately and philosophically science is the organ of general social progress.  (Democracy and Education ch. 17)

Perhaps I would demur at calling science THE organ of progress, but science as a method of intelligent action is indispensable.

Like many science educators, I think of the gap, or even alienation,  between scientist and citizen to derive from insufficient exchange.  In discussing controversial topics with nonscientists,  I have often felt it important to get across how laborious it can be to establish even a little new insight into some small question — and how fallible even this excellent enterprise can be, how much in need of reflection, correction, debate, revision.

Thus, it seems to me that, though I am not a big fan of NGSS, the call to engage students with content through ” the practices” is surely in the right direction, and needs to be accompanied by stories of many kinds  — from theory-building to narratives of discovery, disputation, refutation, and further inquiry.  For this, scientists and science educators need to keep working more and more effectively together, each learning from the other more and more attentively.

But there’s another thing:  Who is it we are trying to educate?  Are we bold enough?  Scientists have in the past few years been critiquing the way they take part in the public discourse, playing a leavening part in creative civic ferment. Jane Lubchenko, the great ecologist and quondam NOAA director,   said a few years ago:

In my experience, scientific information is often not taken into account because the information is not readily available, or it’s not understandable, or it’s not seen as being relevant or useful, or it’s not seen as being credible to the person making the decision. Oftentimes, it’s a combination of many or all of those.

Scientists bear responsibility for all of these failures, to varying degrees. And we can be proactive in addressing the reasons why scientific information is often not available, understandable, useable, or credible. For example, in my experience, many, many people, including many politicians, simply assume they won’t understand what a scientist is saying. “It’s too technical!” “I don’t understand all those big words!” “Scientists caveat everything so much; I guess they don’t aren’t confident about anything.” These are statements I’ve heard multiple times. I think this is highly unfortunate.

Later in the same address, Lubchenk0 said

I believe that academic scholars have a responsibility to be proactive in engaging directly with society. I believe that part of our obligation—our social contract, if you will—involves a two-way communication with society. Specifically, in exchange for public funding, our jobs are both to create new knowledge and to share it widely with transparency and humility. When I first proposed this idea of a social contract for science eighteen years ago in my presidential address, the academic culture was so chilling toward public engagement, I was pretty darn sure that I would have rotten tomatoes thrown at me when I gave my speech. However, much to my surprise and pleasure, I was given a standing ovation instead. I was told it was the first standing ovation that an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) presidential address had garnered. I took it as the beginning of a new awakening within the academic community.

Well, and the same  thing needs to be true of learning scientists and science educators — we must learn deeply, research passionately, sure, but also feel it as part of our contract with society to tell the story — of findings and of methods — far beyond our usual circles.  Not just to colleagues;  not just to policy makers;  but to as many kinds  of people as we can.  And when your practice comes to include this kind of public engagement, tell colleagues how it went, so they are equipped and emboldened to do it themselves.

 

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