The trivialization of science education

It’s time for universities to accept their role in scientific illiteracy.  

There is a growing problem with scientific illiteracy, and its close relative, scientific over-confidence. While understanding science, by which most people seem to mean technological skills, or even the ability to program a device (1), is purported to be a critical competitive factor in our society, we see a parallel explosion of pseudo-scientific beliefs, often religiously held.  Advocates of a gluten-free paleo-diet battle it out with orthodox vegans for a position on the Mount Rushmore of self-righteousness, at the same time astronomers and astrophysicists rebrand themselves as astrobiologists (a currently imaginary discipline) while a subset of theoretical physicists, and the occasional evolutionary biologist, claim to have rendered ethicists and philosophers obsolete (oh, if it were only so). There are many reasons for this situation, most of which are probably innate to the human condition.  Our roots are in the vitamin C-requiring Haplorhini (dry nose) primate family, we were not evolved to think scientifically, and scientific thinking does not come easy for most of us, or for any of us over long periods of time (2). The fact that the sciences are referred to as disciplines reflects this fact, it requires constant vigilance, self-reflection, and the critical skepticism of knowledgeable colleagues to build coherent, predictive, and empirically validated models of the Universe (and ourselves).  In point of fact, it is amazing that our models of the Universe have become so accurate, particularly as they are counter-intuitive and often seem incredible, using the true meaning of the word.

Many social institutions claim to be in the business of developing and supporting scientific literacy and disciplinary expertise, most obviously colleges and universities.  Unfortunately, there are several reasons to question the general efficacy of their efforts and several factors that have led to this failure. There is the general tendency (although exactly how wide-spread is unclear, I cannot find appropriate statistics on this question) of requiring non-science students to take one, two, or more  “natural science” courses, often with associated laboratory sections, as a way to “enhance literacy and knowledge of one or more scientific disciplines, and enhance those reasoning and observing skills that are necessary to evaluate issues with scientific content” (source).

That such a requirement will “enable students to understand the current state of knowledge in at least one scientific discipline, with specific reference to important past discoveries and the directions of current development; to gain experience in scientific observation and measurement, in organizing and quantifying results, in drawing conclusions from data, and in understanding the uncertainties and limitations of the results; and to acquire sufficient general scientific vocabulary and methodology to find additional information about scientific issues, to evaluate it critically, and to make informed decisions” (source) suggests a rather serious level of faculty/institutional distain or apathy for observable learning outcomes, devotional levels of wishful thinking,  or simple hubris.  To my knowledge there is no objective evidence to support the premise that such requirements achieve these outcomes – which renders the benefits of such requirements problematic, to say the least (link).

On the other hand, such requirements have clear and measurable costs; going beyond the simple burden of added and potentially ineffective or off-putting course credit hours. The frequent requirement for multi-hour laboratory courses impacts the ability of students to schedule courses.  It would be an interesting study to examine how, independently of benefit, such laboratory course requirements impact students’ retention and time to degree, that is, bluntly put, costs to students and their families.

Now, if there were objective evidence that taking such courses improved students’ understanding of a specific disciplinary science and its application, perhaps the benefit would warrant the cost.  But one can be forgiven if one assumes a less charitable driver, that is, science departments’ self-interest in using laboratory and other non-major course requirements as means to support graduate students.  Clearly there is a need for objective metrics for scientific, that is disciplinary, literacy and learning outcomes.

And this brings up another cause for concern.  Recently, there has been a movement within the science education research community to attempt to quantify learning in terms of what are known as “forced choice testing instruments;” that is, tests that rely on true/false and multiple-choice questions, an actively anti-Socratic strategy.  In some cases, these tests claim to be research based.  As one involved in the development of such a testing instrument (the Biology Concepts Instrument or BCI), it is clear to me that such tests can serve a useful role in helping to identify areas in which student understanding is weak or confused [example], but whether they can provide an accurate or, at the end of the day, meaningful measure of whether students have developed an accurate working understanding of complex concepts and the broader meaning of observations is problematic at best.

Establishing such a level of understanding relies on Socratic, that is, dynamic and adaptive evaluations: can the learner clearly explain, either to other experts or to other students, the source and implications of their assumptions?  This is the gold standard for monitoring disciplinary understanding. It is being increasingly side-lined by those who rely on forced choice tests to evaluate learning outcomes and to support their favorite pedagogical strategies (examples available upon request).  In point of fact, it is often difficult to discern, in most science education research studies, what students have come to master, what exactly they know, what they can explain and what they can do with their knowledge. Rather unfortunately, this is not a problem restricted to non-majors taking science course requirements; majors can also graduate with a fragmented and partially, or totally, incoherent understanding of key ideas and their empirical foundations.

So what are the common features of a functional understanding of a particular scientific discipline, or more accurately, a sub-discipline?  A few ideas seem relevant.  A proficient needs to be realistic about their own understanding.  We need to teach disciplinary (and general) humility – no one actually understands all aspects of most scientific processes.  This is a point made by Fernbach & Sloman in their recent essay, “Why We Believe Obvious Untruths.”  Humility about our understanding has a number of beneficial aspects.  It helps keep us skeptical when faced with, and asked to accept, sweeping generalizations.

Such skepticism is part of a broader perspective, common among working scientists, namely the ability to distinguish the obvious from the unlikely, the implausible, and the impossible. When considering a scientific claim, the first criterion is whether there is a plausible mechanism that can be called upon to explain it, or does it violate some well-established “law of nature”. Claims of “zero waste” processes butt up against the laws of thermodynamics.

Going further, we need to consider how the observation or conclusions fits with other well established principles, which means that we have to be aware of these principles, as well as acknowledging that we are not universal experts in all aspects of science.  A molecular biologist may recognize that quantum mechanics dictates the geometries of atomic bonding interactions without being able to formally describe the intricacies of the molecule’s wave equation. Similarly, a physicist might think twice before ignoring the evolutionary history of a species, and claiming that quantum mechanics explains consciousness, or that consciousness is a universal property of matter.  Such a level of disciplinary expertise can take extended experience to establish, but is critical to conveying what disciplinary mastery involves to students; it is the major justification for having disciplinary practitioners (professors) as instructors.

From a more prosaic educational perspective other key factors need to be acknowledged, namely a realistic appreciation of what people can learn in the time available to them, while also understanding at least some of their underlying motivations, which is to say that the relevance of a particular course to disciplinary goals or desired educational outcomes needs to be made explicit and as engaging as possible, or at least not overtly off putting, something that can happen when a poor unsuspecting molecular biology major takes a course in macroscopic physics, taught by an instructor who believes organisms are deducible from first principles based on the conditions of the big bang.  Respecting the learner requires that we explicitly acknowledge that an unbridled thirst for an empirical, self-critical, mastery of a discipline is not a basic human trait, although it is something that can be cultivated, and may emerge given proper care.  Understanding the real constraints that act on meaningful learning can help focus courses on what is foundational, and help eliminate the irrelevant or the excessively esoteric.

Unintended consequences arise from “pretending” to teach students, both majors and non-science majors, science. One is an erosion of humility in the face of the complexity of science and our own limited understanding, a point made in a recent National Academy report that linked superficial knowledge with more non-scientific attitudes. The end result is an enhancement of what is known as the Kruger-Dunning effect, the tendency of people to seriously over-estimate their own expertise: “the effect describes the way people who are the least competent at a task often rate their skills as exceptionally high because they are too ignorant to know what it would mean to have the skill”.

A person with a severe case of Kruger-Dunning-itis is likely to lose respect for people who actually know what they are talking about. The importance of true expertise is further eroded and trivialized by the current trend of having photogenic and well-speaking experts in one domain pretend to talk, or rather to pontificate, authoritatively on another (3).  In a world of complex and arcane scientific disciplines, the role of a science guy or gal can promote rather than dispel scientific illiteracy.

We see the effects of the lack of scientific humility when people speak outside of their domain of established expertise to make claims of certainty, a common feature of the conspiracy theorist.  An oft used example is the claim that vaccines cause autism (they don’t), when the actual causes of autism, whether genetic and/or environmental, are currently unknown and the subject of active scientific study.  An honest expert can, in all humility, identify the limits of current knowledge as well as what is known for certain.  Unfortunately, revealing and ameliorating the levels of someone’s Kruger-Dunning-itis involves a civil and constructive Socratic interrogation, something of an endangered species in this day and age, where unseemly certainty and unwarranted posturing have replaced circumspect and critical discourse.  Any useful evaluation of what someone knows demands the time and effort inherent in a Socratic discourse, the willingness to explain how one knows what one thinks one knows, together with a reflective consideration of its implications, and what it is that other trained observers, people demonstrably proficient in the discipline, have concluded. It cannot be replaced by a multiple choice test.

Perhaps a new (old) model of encouraging in students, as well as politicians and pundits, an understanding of where science comes from, the habits of mind involved, the limits of, and constraints on, our current understanding  is needed.  At the college level, courses that replace superficial familiarity and unwarranted certainty with humble self-reflection and intellectual modesty might help treat the symptoms of Kruger-Dunning-itis, even though the underlying disease may be incurable, and perhaps genetically linked to other aspects of human neuronal processing.


some footnotes:

  1. after all, why are rather distinct disciplines lumped together as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
  2.  Given the long history of Homo sapiens before the appearance of science, it seems likely that such patterns of thinking are an unintended consequence of selection for some other trait, and the subsequent emergence of (perhaps excessively) complex and self-reflective nervous system.
  3.  Another example of Neil Postman’s premise that education is be replaced by edutainment (see  “Amusing ourselves to Death”.

Author: Mike Klymkowsky

I am a Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Growing up in Pennsylvania, I earned a bachelors degree in biophysics from Penn State then moved to California and earned a Ph.D. from CalTech (working for a time at UCSF and the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic). I was a Muscular Dystrophy Association post-doctoral fellow at University College London and the Rockefeller University before moving to Boulder. My research has involved a number of topics, including neurotransmitter receptor structure, cytoskeletal organization and ciliary function, neural crest formation, and signaling systems in the context of the clawed frog Xenopus laevis as well as biology education research, leading to the development of the Biological Concepts Instrument (BCI), a suite of virtuallaboratory activities, and biofundamentals, a re-designed introductory molecular biology course. I have a close collaboration with Melanie Cooper (@Michigan State) that has resulted in transformed (and demonstrably effective and engaging) course materials in general and organic chemistry known as CLUE: Chemistry, Life, the Universe & Everything. I was in the first class of Pew Biomedical Scholars and am a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

3 thoughts on “The trivialization of science education”

  1. “In a world of complex and arcane scientific disciplines, the role of a science guy or gal can promote rather than dispel scientific illiteracy.”

    Yeah, I didn’t like “Bill Nye Saves the World” either.

    Several of your comments brought to mind Milton Rothman’s rules of skepticism, especially “Be skeptical of the opinions of experts outside their areas of expertise.” That not only includes scientists of one discipline making excessive claims about another, but scientists in general pontificating on non-scientific subjects (philosophy, for instance). Scientism, a belief in the epistemological primacy of science and (in extreme forms) the literal incomprehensibility of anything non-scientific, has ironically done more damage to the reputation of science by trying to raise it upon the throne. By attempting to elevate science to a kind of dogmatic religion more jealous than any theistic God has thrown it into battles it cannot and was never designed to win (against art, morals, religion, philosophy, etc.) but also exposed the ignorance of its own proponents. In the words of G.K. Chesterton, spoken a century ago but more relevant than ever in light of Scientism, New Atheism, and “Bill Nye Saves the World”: “The trouble with the expert is never that he is not a man; it is always that wherever he is not an expert he is too much of an ordinary man. Wherever he is not exceptionally learned he is quite casually ignorant. This is the great fallacy in the case of what is called the impartiality of men of science. If scientific men had no idea beyond their scientific work it might be all very well — that is to say, all very well for everybody except them. But the truth is that, beyond their scientific ideas, they have not the absence of ideas but the presence of the most vulgar and sentimental ideas that happen to be common to their social clique. If a biologist had no views on art and morals it might be all very well. The truth is that the biologist has all the wrong views of art and morals that happen to be going about in the smart set of his time.” Any random non-scientist is perfectly well acquainted with the limitations of science when overzealous scientists, speaking out of turn, pontificate on areas that the non-scientist is an expert in. Not pitting science in fights it can’t win would go a long way to teaching it properly.

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