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The Republic vs. Science

by Howell Burke

The Republic vs. Science

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Picture by Chris Cureton

June 26, 2011

recent NPR article reveals an alarming statistic: Americans are less likely than ever to accept global climate change as a real phenomenon, despite scientific consensus on the issue and the approval of the National Academy of Sciences (read more from the Pew Research Center here). Scientists agree that the Earth’s average temperature is increasing, correlating closely with human activity. We’re disrupting the carbon cycle in a significant way. This is affecting global economic and political relationships, yet many Americans refuse to admit that climate change is real.

Scientific issues have increasingly become political and economic issues. Add to anthropogenic climate change a growing list of issues including stem cell therapy, the growing obesity epidemic, and the extinction of the Earth’s biodiversity. Each of these holds profound social and economic consequences for governments and their citizens. Modern science took form during the Enlightenment, facilitated by the same intellectual framework that gave rise to our republic. But while we hold fast to many of the foundational ideas that emerged during that time period, it appears that many Americans just don’t trust science. What gives?

Lack of understanding about science may begin in the classroom. Most Americans, even college graduates, get the majority of their exposure to science in primary and secondary school. For the last two years, I have been fortunate to teach at a school that gave me the flexibility to try different teaching styles in my classroom, depending on student needs, as long as students remained engaged with course material at a high level. Not all teachers are so lucky. American science teachers are held hostage by state standards and standardized testing. Standardized testing may or may not test a student’s knowledge of scientific concepts. But what’s certain is that standardized testing does not assess the marks of a true scientist: fundamental curiosity about the physical world, the ability to apply and adapt methods to solve problems, and the people skills to work on a team. (It’s worth noting that these character traits are equally valuable to doctors, writers, and auto mechanics. For an excellent example of a science class putting these skills to use, see this article about one of my colleagues and his students.)

Science is getting left behind as education barrels forward with its multiple-choice tests. The rigid structure of daily life at many schools compounds this. Students’ days are scheduled to the minute. P.E. and art classes have been scaled back or cut out entirely in many districts. Recess, formerly an unstructured time when kids could make their own rules - and develop important social skills as they did - is increasingly regimented or nonexistent. Recently, a group of convicts spoke to my students about making good decisions (and not ending up in jail). One former inmate described life behind bars: “It’s awful. You have to wake up early every day, you have to be in the same place at the same time every day, you can’t go anywhere unsupervised, you only get ten minutes to eat...” One of my colleagues leaned over to me and whispered, “It sounds a lot like school.”

If we want to teach science effectively - or teach any other subject, for that matter - we need to rethink what we teach, how we teach it, and how we run our schools. We implicitly mistrust that which is foreign to us. In too many schools, today’s science curricula do not familiarize students with the scientific process of building consensus through repeated observation and modeling of scientific phenomena. This process remains confusing and inaccessible to too many students. Science does not happen through multiple choice tests. It is built around experimentation, innovation, and conversation. If students learn to engage in this process and trust it as middle school and high school students, then they might not be so skeptical of it as adults.

Science is changing our world at an ever-increasing pace, but its education component has not kept up. After a lecture on the carbon cycle that I attended, the professor told our class, “Congratulations. You now know more about carbon dioxide and global climate change than the legislators creating policy about it.” Unfortunately, he probably was not exaggerating. Policy-makers, businesses, and voters frequently make decisions regarding these questions without basic understanding of the scientific concepts that make these phenomena work.

Don’t let our legislators vote uninformed. Give them a better middle school science class.

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