On the Subject of Science

A photo through the lens of a pair of glasses, focusing on the pages of a book.

Any scientist will tell you that science is not a cult or a religion. Rather, it is a methodological worldview, where observations about the world inform hypotheses. Hypotheses can ideally be supported or rejected, without bias, based on replicable experimentation. This is something we all do, whether we’re trained as scientists or not.

Consider the temperature of your shower in the morning. You know how to set it to just the right temperature. This is because you repeatedly manipulate that same faucet. You know your own preferences, and you adjust your behavior based on previous observations of scalding yourself or freezing. It’s why when you visit a hotel room or stay over at a relative’s house, you hypothesize that it will be comparable to your own shower at home. You manipulate the showerhead just like you would at home. Then, depending on whether or not your hypothesis is true, you adjust. This series of steps is the scientific process.

At its core, science isn’t exclusive. Everyone participates, and everyone is a stakeholder. So why do we see such a chasm between scientists and nonscientists presented in the media? Why do those of us who pursue science professionally get treated like we’re an exclusive and conniving group of cons out to make a buck or push an agenda?

I posit that a lot of it has to do with a general lack of knowledge about what science is, what scientists are capable of, and how we all interact with the process and outcomes of scientific discovery every day. In short, America has a problem with science illiteracy. Many people don’t know what they don’t know, and they get defensive when they’re told by someone who does.

Science illiteracy stems partially from an abject failure of K-12 science education in this country. There’s been extensive debate about how to go about doing this, and the end result seems to be some sort of cheap compromise where we teach students “the facts”they need to pass their tests. These topics include the structure of DNA, the types of bonds in molecules, and the names of geological features. Classrooms become an exercise in memorization, which is one of the least important skills for a career in the sciences. For many students, it’s boring and unrelatable. I would argue that science in its true form (like the process with the shower) cannot prepare its students to pass a standardized test while simultaneously improving their skills as scientists. Cook-book experiments with foregone outcomes in high school labs do not engender the curiosity or creativity of actual hypothesis-testing. Add to that the seemingly endless hours of structured homework that prevent kids mucking around in the dirt or tinkering in their garage, and we’ve effectively killed our children’s opportunities to learn by doing.

Simultaneously, we churn out graduates who passed their “science” classes and view science as a static body of facts, because that’s how they learned it. While 90% of Americans have a high school diploma or equivalent, only about a third are college-educated. If we want to change how science is taught and perceived by the public, college isn’t the place to start. Furthermore, focusing on high school level science is the long-game. If we could change science pedagogy across the country overnight, it would still be almost 15 years before the first class would complete the modified program.

Then there’s the problem that changing K-12 education standards is the responsibility of today’s adults. Adults who don’t always know the answers to basic science questions are in charge of making decisions that affect our world -- in education and beyond. If someone can get through life without knowing basic scientific facts and principles, it becomes very easy for them to deny that those facts and principles are important.

But even in matters of life or death, there is disagreement between what scientists conclude and what the general public believes. As a scientist, this disparity is abysmally frustrating. We elected a president who -- contrary to the near-unanimous consensus of the scientific community -- denies that man-made climate change exists. It seems that every day there’s another story about a child dying of preventable disease, or a fossil-fuel spill polluting large swaths of land or water.

And so, fellow scientists and science enthusiasts, I propose it’s time we step outside of our comfort zones and embrace action.

Where do we start? The world is complex, and trying to tackle every misconception and alternative-fact at once is a good way to burn out fighting the good fight. I turned to the engaged and passionate scientific community on the internet to poll professional and hobby scientists for their opinions of the “most critical gap in general understanding of science knowledge” -- presumably, what they would teach every American, given the chance.

Out of 412 responses, over one-third of scientists said that the most pressing topic is that “the climate is changing rapidly” and “humans are responsible.”

 What can be done to breach this illiteracy? Talk about it as much as you can, with as many people as you can, and relate it to their lives. It doesn’t hurt to have a few unassailable facts in your pockets, or to point out that a snowless January in Chicago is actually terrifying.

But these tools are still unlikely to instill any real change. Instead, we must support policies that are good for the environment. Science Informed Leadership is working on making this a top priority. If you want to know how policy is being crafted, start by keeping up to date on their outreach. It’s time for those of us with science backgrounds to actively get involved in politics, even if we can only do so as private citizens. I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but don’t be afraid to enter the political arena or at least support candidates who have a science-based platform on climate change. And, as always, call your elected officials.

The second most popular response dealt with scientific publication, the peer review process, and the focus on rigor and replicability. In short, science is a process that undergoes intense internal scrutiny -- by other scientists who know how it’s supposed to be done. In short, peer review is an essential pillar of science because it relies on expert critique to validate methodology and reduce bias.

But it seems that peer review is a mystery to those outside of professional research. I did a pretty extensive search online and found only one resource that explained the process in easy-to-understand terms. A good starting point for public understanding of science would be to infuse our media with information from peer-reviewed sources. But first, people (including those in the media) need to know what that even means!

So, creative, science-outreach oriented folks, I challenge you to undertake projects that will educate the public on what science is and how the peer review process works. Get people thinking about who they want refereeing their information. Media literacy and science literacy go hand-in-hand. Be judicious about what you share on social media, and make sure that you fact-check yourself and your scientist friends. If Facebook needs anything, it’s a team of people dedicated to reviewing their peers. It’s time to reclaim some of our lost authority on science; to stand up for what we know is a critical process for the improvement of knowledge and understanding.

If we know anything from evolution, it’s that population change is possible. But it must be driven by some agent of selection. So be that selective force against science illiteracy in your own right. Encourage higher standards of discourse. Don’t settle for unfounded opinions. And continue seeking out a deeper understanding of the wonderful world we share.