Confronting a Threat to Scientific Progress: Skepticism

Scientific progress is at its highest point in history, yet advances in health, environmental protection, and other fields face a major threat: distrust from some members of the public. Although 97% of scientists agree that global temperatures are rising and changing ecosystems, less than 75% of American citizens do. And a shocking number of parents distrust the safety of childhood vaccines, despite the fact that fabricated claims about the risks have been thoroughly debunked.

What is at the root of this distrust and what can the scientific community do about it? The problems aren’t simple, but they may be fixable, write Gale Sinatra and Barbara Hofer in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences. The key is that people need a better understanding of the scientific process, methods, and “science as a way of knowing.”

Science, Sinatra and Hofer point out, is not simply a collection of facts, but a way of viewing the world. That view involves evaluating evidence and revising assumptions with new information. Making decisions about scientific questions requires that people understand and use skills like critical thinking, considering multiple explanations, and evaluating methods and sources for credibility. A lack of these skills can lead to misunderstandings. For example, the scientific process includes revising knowledge over time to incorporate new findings; openness to revision is part of the enterprise. But many people assume that uncertainty indicates error, so they see revision as indicating a lack of trustworthiness, Sinatra and Hofer explain.

The way people think about science (and about knowledge in general) runs deep, so it’s not enough to just give people information – what Sinatra and Hofer call the “just add knowledge” approach. (A case in point: a recent campaign to debunk the myth about vaccines causing autism actually made skeptical parents more convinced that vaccines are harmful.) Yet, imparting facts is exactly what schools have done for generations, asking students to memorize the Krebs cycle and define the parts of a cell. Fortunately, that has begun to change, with a nudge from the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards, which task schools with nurturing students’ critical thinking and analysis skills. Sinatra and Hofer applaud those efforts, encouraging educational policies “that emphasize how to think, over what to think.” They also recommend that schools:

  • Teach scientific processes so that students understand how scientists come to make their claims and what it takes for their fields to accept those claims. This also helps people evaluate studies for themselves. The researchers caution that this requires more than just explaining what a controlled experiment is, and recommend introducing students to many different methods that are appropriate to different fields.
  • Teach for deeper understanding that goes beyond general familiarity with a topic. It may be more beneficial for students to go deep into a few topics rather than to skim the surface of many, so that they can internalize the processes of inquiry, analysis, and reflection. Sinatra and Hofer recommend that teachers use curriculum tools that encourage critical, collaborative, and reflective discussions in the classroom.
  • Teach students to think critically about who the authorities are/should be on scientific matters. There are so many places to get information today that it’s more critical than ever for students to understand who to trust on scientific topics – and more importantly, why.

Sinatra and Hofer point out that schools aren’t the only ones responsible for the public’s views of science. The media need to be more careful also. Too often, journalists think they are being fair and unbiased by presenting both sides of a scientific issue like climate change even when it is all but settled in the scientific community. But that gives undue weight to skeptics of science, Sinatra and Hofer believe. Furthermore, news stories and “click-bait” headlines often limit their analysis to “a new study shows” without much information about the methods or sources, or consideration of other studies on the same topic. Sinatra and Hofer fear that “this trend undermines public trust in science because individuals may perceive scientific knowledge to be so uncertain that they may… just pick whatever finding they like and go with that.”

Implementation of the researchers’ recommendations is more encouraging in schools than in the media. But the stakes are high in both domains. After all, as Sinatra and Hofer point out, “Democracies depend on educated citizens who can make informed decisions that are important to their own lives and others’, and for the good of their health and well-being, their communities, nation, and planet.”

Access the original article by Sinatra and Hofer, “Public Understanding of Science: Policy and Educational Implications” in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

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