Science Classes Might Need a Change in Focus

Oct 20, 2017

I’ve heard the internet referred to as the greatest tool for the human mind, or as the greatest assault on cognitive development. I take a far more standard approach to the internet; it is no doubt a tool, but I do not hesitate to suggest it can be misleading, with erroneous information and a tendency to bring out the worst of us (largely due to the ability to remain anonymous).

It’s a promiscuous tool, and one I fear may be largely responsible for the distribution of bad information, especially the spread of bad science. Now the term “bad science” is largely misleading, as much of what I am discussing is not science at all; it is fallacious and does not conform to the processes of science. When I refer to “bad science,” I speak of “anti-vaxxers,” global warming “skeptics,” young earth creationists, and even so-called “flat-earthers,” (do not be fooled; they do exist). These positions are ones which directly conflict with known science.

For a hypothesis to be merely considered in science, it must be put through a rigorous process of peer-review, which can take months and involves the input of the brightest minds in the field.  Most papers submitted will be rejected. But there is no peer-review process with the internet.  Not that there should be; that could be considered a violation of free speech. Blogs or websites which report to write about science need no credentials, and need not be prestigious or even correct; they merely need to be convincing. 

The heart of the matter is that 51 percent of Americans deny human-induced climate change, 34 percent deny evolution, and 6.5 percent of citizens claim vaccines connect to autism, according to multiple polls from the Pew Research Center. Despite our current efforts to better teach these topics in school, people would rather believe politicians and online blogs over the wealth of scientific data and peer-reviewed papers.

Now here is the tough part; in many areas of the country we’re already trying to ramp up education on these topics. Why is this form of education not more successful? The answer is in the nature of science classes.  It’s hard. I’m currently in AP biology. First we must review the 12 chapters from honors biology last year, and on top of that review another 10 or so chapters if we ever wish to do well on the AP exam. Even standard science classes are struggling in some regard to meet the standards grading system recently instituted. Such standards and tests require students to fill up on information. We’re force-fed facts and figures the likes of which we cannot possibly retain, and will have little impact on our futures. So while facts and figures serve their purpose, are they really going to help reduce the issue of science-denial we currently face in this country?

There is one adjustment that can significantly impact the scientific mindset of future generations, and that is critical thinking. What science classes, and other classes for that matter, disregard is critical thinking. We’re given data and told to analyze it, yet rarely are there times when the answer is not apparent.  

We need to teach students how to think, not what to think. How would this look? For one, even a basic understanding of how science works could help. We all know the basic scientific method. We’ve all seen the diagram “first identify the problem, form a hypothesis, test the hypothesis.”  But that’s not what science is about. Why are we never taught about the peer-review process?

My second point is criticism: critical thinking involves not merely comparing numbers, but contemplating arguments.  Understanding how to set aside your own biased common sense and follow the data without preconceived notions.  Even an understanding of basic argument fallacies, such as dogmatism and the “band wagon,” can tell students how to determine science from a fictitious claim on online blogs.  Both understanding how to avoid common pitfalls in understanding and how to better analyze data in a scientific manner are part of critical thinking.

All in all, I feel what our science classes are lacking is the teaching of scrutiny, the teaching of skepticism, an understanding of real science, and how to avoid our own personal biases and preconceived notions.

Sam Broadbent is a junior at Freeport High School.