Assigning Blame for Public Science Skepticism

I’ve been thinking a lot about public skepticism for science, perhaps a result of the present tense political climate. The depth of public skepticism is reflected in observations ranging from US presidential doubts about climate change to celebrity doubts that the Earth is in fact a sphere (NBA star Kyrie Irving’s claim back in February 2017). I am left to wonder, how can anyone think that the world is flat or that climate isn’t changing? Who’s to blame for such a failure of the public education system?

Teachers of course.

I coauthored an article in the Spring 2017 newsletter of the Minnesota Science Teachers’ Association accepting a type of blame on us teachers. The blame, though, rests not so much with failure to expose students to ‘true’ science as with failure to teach science in a way that compels trust in the results. We tend to teach our students to know and explain the theories rather than to understand the observational and investigative underpinnings of them, a problem that my coauthor and I examine in our recently published book, Learning to Read the Earth and Sky. If we teachers give our students the theories, but don’t engage them in the practices of science that allow them to test those theories, why shouldn’t we expect public skepticism?

If skepticism originates in the divorcement of science theory from observation and reason, then it occurs to me that science fiction writers can take part of the blame as well. Modern science fiction has very little science in it, that is, it contains a lot of ‘magical’ technology, weird jargon, and mystical properties of the universe rather than investigation based on observation and reasoning. Of course, science fiction is fiction after all. What should we expect? But when there is little effort to connect the ‘in theory’ statements in science fiction to¬†observation and reasoning within the story, it leaves the subtle impression that science is just a different form of magic to be accepted on faith. Or not.

Something to think about.

Dr C.

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