Avoiding unrecognized racist implications arising from teaching genetics

It is common to think of teaching as socially and politically beneficial, or at least benign, but Donovan et al. (2019. ” Toward a more humane genetics education” Science Education 103: 529-560)(1) raises the interesting possibility, supported by various forms of analysis and a thorough review of the literature, that conventional approaches to teaching genetics can exacerbate students’ racialist ideas. A focus on genetic diseases associated with various population groups, say for example Tay-Sachs disease within Eastern European Jewish populations of sickle cell anemia within African populations, can result in more racialist and racist perspectives among students.

What is meant by racialist? Basically it is an essentialist perspective that a person is an exemplar of the essence of a group, and that all members of a particular group “carry” that essence, an essence that defines them as different and distinct from members of other groups. Such an essence may reflect a culture, or in our more genetical age, their genome, that is the versions of the genes that they possess. In a sense, their essence is more real than their individuality, an idea that contradicts the core reality of biological systems, as outlined in works by Mayr (2,3) – a mistake he termed typological thinking.

Donovan et al. go on to present evidence that exposure of students to lessons that stress the genomic similarities between humans can help. That “any two humans share 99.9% of their DNA, which means that 0.1% of human DNA varies between individuals. Studies find that, on average, 4.3% of genetic variability in humans (4.3% of the 0.1% of the variable portion of human DNA) occurs between the continental populations commonly associated with US census racial groups (i.e., Africa, Asia, Pacific Islands, and The Americas, Europe). In contrast, 95.7% of human genetic variation (95.7% of the 0.1% of variable portion of human DNA) occurs between individuals within those same groups” (italics added). And that “there is more variability in skull shape, facial structure, and blood types within racially defined populations … than there is between them.” Lessons that emphasized the genomic similarities between people and the dissimilarities within groups, appeared effective in reducing racialist ideation – they can help dispel racist beliefs while presenting the most scientifically accurate information available.

This is of particular importance given the dangers of genetic essentialism, that is the idea that we are our genomes and that our genomes determine who (and what) we are. A pernicious ideology that even the co-discover of DNA’s structure, James Watson, has fallen prey to. One pernicious aspect of such conclusions is illustrated in the critique of a recent genomic analysis of educational attainment and cognitive performance by John Warner (4).

An interesting aspect of this work is to raise the question of where, within a curriculum, should genetics go? What are the most important aspects of the complex molecular-level interaction networks that connect genotype with phenotype that need to be included in order to flesh out the overly simplified Mendelian view (pure dominant and recessive alleles, monogenic traits, and unlinked genes) often presented? A point of particular relevance given the growing complexity of what genes are and how they act (5,6). Perhaps the serious consideration of genetic systems would be better left for later in a curriculum. At the very least, it points out the molecular and genomic contexts that should be included so as to minimize the inadvertent support for racialist predilections and predispositions. 

modified from F1000 post


  1. Donovan, B. M., R. Semmens, P. Keck, E. Brimhall, K. Busch, M. Weindling, A. Duncan, M. Stuhlsatz, Z. B. Bracey and M. Bloom (2019). “Toward a more humane genetics education: Learning about the social and quantitative complexities of human genetic variation research could reduce racial bias in adolescent and adult populations.” Science Education 103(3): 529-560.
  2. Mayr (1985) The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press ISBN: 9780674364462
  3. Mayr (1994) Typological versus population thinking. In: Conceptual issues in evolutionary biology. MIT Press, Bradford Books, 157-160. Sober E (ed)
  4. Why we shouldn’t embrace the genetics of education. Warner J. Inside Higher Ed blog, July 26 2018 Available online (accessed Aug 22 2019)
  5. Genes – way weirder than you thought. Bioliteracy blog, Jul 09 2018
  6. The evolving definition of the term “gene”. Portin & Wilkins. 2017 Genetics. 205:1353-1364

Remembering the past and recognizing the limits of science …

A recent article in the Guardian reports on a debate at University College London (1) on whether to rename buildings because the people honored harbored odious ideological and political positions. Similar debates and decisions, in some cases involving unacceptable and abusive behaviors rather than ideological positions, have occurred at a number of institutions (see Calhoun at Yale, Sackler in NYC, James Watson at Cold Spring Harbor, Tim Hunt at the MRC, and sexual predators within the National Academy of Sciences). These debates raise important and sometimes troubling issues.

When a building is named after a scientist, it is generally in order to honor that person’s scientific contributions. The scientist’s ideological opinions are rarely considered explicitly, although they may influence the decision at the time.  In general, scientific contributions are timeless in that they represent important steps in the evolution of a discipline, often by establishing a key observation, idea, or conceptual framework upon which subsequent progress is based – they are historically important.  In this sense, whether a scientific contribution was correct (as we currently understand the natural world) is less critical than what that contribution led to. The contribution marks a milestone or a turning point in a discipline, understanding that the efforts of many underlie disciplinary progress and that those contributors made it possible for others to “see further.” (2)

Since science is not about recognizing or establishing a single unchanging capital-T-Truth, but rather about developing an increasingly accurate model for how the world works, it is constantly evolving and open to revision.  Working scientists are not particularly upset when new observations lead to revisions to or the abandonment of ideas or the addition of new terms to equations.(3)

Compare that to the situation in the ideological, political, or religious realms.  A new translation or interpretation of a sacred text can provoke schism and remarkably violent responses between respective groups of believers. The closer the groups are to one another, the more horrific the levels of violence that emerge often are.  In contrast, over the long term, scientific schools of thought resolve, often merging with one another to form unified disciplines. From my own perspective, and not withstanding the temptation to generate new sub-disciplines (in part in response to funding factors), all of the life sciences have collapsed into a unified evolutionary/molecular framework.  All scientific disciplines tend to become, over time, consistent with, although not necessarily deducible from, one another, particularly when the discipline respects and retains connections to the real (observable) world.(4)  How different from the political and ideological.

The historical progression of scientific ideas is dramatically different from that of political, religious, or social mores.  No matter what some might claim, the modern quantum mechanical view of the atom bears little meaningful similarity to the ideas of the cohort that included Leucippus and Democritus.  There is progress in science.  In contrast, various belief systems rarely abandon their basic premises.  A politically right- or left-wing ideologue might well find kindred spirits in the ancient world.  There were genocidal racists, theists, and nationalists in the past and there are genocidal racists, theists, and nationalists now.  There were (limited) democracies then, as there are (limited) democracies now; monarchical, oligarchical, and dictatorial political systems then and now; theistic religions then and now. Absolutist ideals of innate human rights, then as now, are routinely sacrificed for a range of mostly self-serving or politically expedient reasons.  Advocates of rule by the people repeatedly install repressive dictatorships. The authors of the United States Constitution declare the sacredness of human rights and then legitimized slavery. “The Bible … posits universal brotherhood, then tells Israel to kill all the Amorites.” (Phil Christman). The eugenic movement is a good example; for the promise of a genetically perfect future, existing people are treated inhumanely – just another version of apocalyptic (ends justify the means) thinking. 

Ignoring the simpler case of not honoring criminals (sexual and otherwise), most calls for removing names from buildings are based on the odious ideological positions espoused by the honored – typically some version of racist, nationalistic, or sexist ideologies.  The complication comes from the fact that people are complex, shaped by the context within which they grow up, their personal histories and the dominant ideological milieu they experienced, as well as their reactions to it.  But these ideological positions are not scientific, although a person’s scientific worldview and their ideological positions may be intertwined. The honoree may claim that science “says” something unambiguous and unarguable, often in an attempt to force others to acquiesce to their perspective.  A modern example would be arguments about whether climate is changing due to anthropogenic factors, a scientific topic, and what to do about it, an economic, political, and perhaps ideological question.(5)

So what to do?  To me, the answer seems reasonably obvious – assuming that the person’s contribution was significant enough, we should leave the name in place and use the controversy to consider why they held their objectionable beliefs and more explicitly why they were wrong to claim scientific justification for their ideological (racist / nationalist / sexist / socially prejudiced) positions.(6)  Consider explicitly why an archeologist (Flinders Petrie), a naturalist (Francis Galton), a statistician (Karl Pearson), and an advocate for women’s reproductive rights (Marie Stopes) might all support the non-scientific ideology of eugenics and forced sterilization.  We can use such situations as a framework within which to delineate the boundaries between the scientific and the ideological. 

Understanding this distinction is critical and is one of the primary justifications for why people not necessarily interested in science or science-based careers are often required to take science courses.  Yet all too often these courses fail to address the constraints of science, the difference between political and ideological opinions, and the implications of scientific models.  I would argue that unless students (and citizens) come to understand what constitutes a scientific idea or conclusion and what reflects a political or ideological position couched in scientific or pseudo-scientific terms, they are not learning what they need to know about science or its place in society.  That science is used as a proxy for Truth writ large is deeply misguided. It is much more important to understand how science works than it is to remember the number of phyla or the names of amino acids, the ability to calculate the pH of a solution, or to understand processes going on at the center of a galaxy or the details of a black hole’s behavior.  While sometimes harmless, misunderstanding science and how it is used socially can result in traumatic social implications, such as drawing harmful conclusions about individuals from statistical generalizations of populations, avoidable deaths from measles, and the forced “eugenic” sterilization of people deemed defective.  We should seek out and embrace opportunities to teach about these issues, even if it means we name buildings after imperfect people.  


  1. The location of some of my post-doc work.
  2. In the words of Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”
  3.  Unless, of course, the ideas and equations being revised or abandoned are one’s own. 
  4.  Perhaps the most striking exception occurs in physics on the subjects of quantum mechanics and relativity, but as I am not a physicist, I am not sure about that. 
  5.  Perhaps people are “meant” to go extinct. 
  6.  The situation is rather different outside of science, because the reality of progress is more problematic and past battles continue to be refought.  Given the history of Reconstruction and the Confederate “Lost Cause” movement [see PBS’s Reconstruction] following the American Civil War, monuments to defenders of slavery, no matter how admirable they may have been in terms of personal bravery and such, reek of implied violence, subjugation, and repression, particularly when the person honored went on to found an institution dedicated to racial hatred and violent intimidation [link]. There would seem little doubt that a monument in honor of a Nazi needs to be eliminated and replaced by one to their victims or to those who defeated them.

Science “awareness” versus “literacy” and why it matters, politically.

Montaigne concludes, like Socrates, that ignorance aware of itself is the only true knowledge”  – from “forbidden knowledge” by Roger Shattuck

A month or so ago we were treated to a flurry of media excitement surrounding the release of the latest Pew Research survey on Americans’ scientific knowledge.  The results of such surveys have been interpreted to mean many things. As an example, the title of Maggie Koerth-Baker’s short essay for the 538 web site was a surprising “Americans are Smart about Science”, a conclusion not universally accepted (see also).  Koerth-Baker was taken by the observation that the survey’s results support a conclusion that Americans’ display “pretty decent scientific literacy”.  Other studies (see Drummond & Fischhoff 2017) report that one’s ability to recognize scientifically established statements does not necessarily correlate with the acceptance of science policies – on average climate change “deniers” scored as well on the survey as “acceptors”.  In this light, it is worth noting that science-based policy pronouncements generally involve projections of what the future will bring, rather than what exactly is happening now.  Perhaps more surprisingly, greater “science literacy” correlates with more polarized beliefs that, given the tentative nature of scientific understanding –which is not about truth per se but practical knowledge–suggests that the surveys’ measure something other than scientific literacy.  While I have written on the subject before  it seems worth revisiting – particularly since since then I have read Rosling’s FactFullness and thought more about the apocalyptic bases of many secular and religious movements, described in detail by the historian Norman Cohn and the philosopher John Gray and gained a few, I hope, potentially useful insights on the matter.  

First, to understand what the survey reports we should take a look at the questions asked and decide what the ability to chose correctly implies about scientific literacy, as generally claimed, or something simpler – perhaps familiarity.  It is worth recognizing that all such instruments, particularly  those that are multiple choice in format, are proxies for a more detailed, time consuming, and costly Socratic interrogation designed to probe the depth of a persons’ knowledge and understanding.  In the Pew (and most other such surveys) choosing the correct response implies familiarity with various topics impacted by scientific observations. They do not necessarily reveal whether or not the respondent understands where the ideas come from, why they are the preferred response, or exactly where and when they are relevant (2). So is “getting the questions correct” demonstrates a familiarity with the language of science and some basic observations and principles but not the limits of respondents’ understanding.  

Take for example the question on antibiotic resistance (→).  The correct answer “it can lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria” does not reveal whether the respondent understands the evolutionary (selective) basis for this effect, that is random mutagenesis (or horizontal gene transfer) and antibiotic-resistance based survival.  It is imaginable that a fundamentalist religious creationist could select the correct answer based on  plausible, non-evolutionary mechanisms (3).  In a different light, the question on oil, natural gas and coal (↓) could be seen as ambiguous – aren’t these all derived from long dead organisms, so couldn’t they reasonably be termed biofuels?  

While there are issues with almost any such multiple choice survey instrument, surely we would agree that choosing the “correct” answers to these 11 questions reflects some awareness of current scientific ideas and terminologies.  Certainly knowing (I think) that a base can neutralize and acid leaves unresolved how exactly the two interact, that is what chemical reaction is going on, not to mention what is going on in the stomach and upper gastrointestinal tract of a human being.  In this case, selecting the correct answer is not likely to conflict with one’s view of anthropogenic effects on climate, sex versus gender, or whether one has an up to date understanding of the mechanisms of immunity and brain development, or the social dynamics behind vaccination – specifically the responsibilities that members of a social group have to one another.   

But perhaps a more relevant point is our understanding of how science deals with the subject of predictions, because at the end of the day it is these predictions that may directly impact people in personal, political, and economically impactful ways. 

We can, I think, usefully divide scientific predictions into two general classes.  There are predictions about a system that can be immediately confirmed or dismissed through direct experiment and observation and those that cannot. The immediate (accessible) type of prediction is the standard model of scientific hypothesis testing, an approach that reveals errors or omissions in one’s understanding of a system or process.  Generally these are the empirical drivers of theoretical understanding (although perhaps not in some areas of physics).  The second type of prediction is inherently more problematic, as it deals with the currently unobservable future (or the distant past).  We use our current understanding of the system, and various assumptions, to build a predictive model of the system’s future behavior (or past events), and then wait to see if they are confirmed. In the case of models about the past, we often have to wait for a fortuitous discovery, for example the discovery of a fossil that might support or disprove our model.   

It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future
– Yogi Berra (apparently)

Anthropogenic effects on climate are an example of the second type of prediction. No matter our level of confidence, we cannot be completely sure our model is accurate until the future arrives. Nevertheless, there is a marked human tendency to take predictions, typically about the end of the world or the future of the stock market, very seriously and to make urgent decisions based upon them. In many cases, these predictions impact only ourselves, they are personal.  In the case of climate change, however, they are likely to have disruptive effects that impact many. Part of the concern about study predictions is that responses to these predictions will have immediate impacts, they produce social and economic winners and losers whether or not the predictions are confirmed by events. As Hans Rosling points out in his book Factfullness, there is an urge to take urgent, drastic, and pro-active actions in the face of perceived (predicted) threats.  These recurrent and urgent calls to action (not unlike repeated, and unfulfilled predictions of the apocalypse) can lead to fatigue with the eventual dismissal of important warnings; warnings that should influence albeit perhaps not dictate ecological-economic and political policy decisions.  

Footnotes and literature cited:
1. As a Pew Biomedical Scholar, I feel some peripheral responsibility for the impact of these reports

2. As pointed out in a forthcoming review, the quality of the distractors, that is the incorrect choices, can dramatically impact the conclusions derived from such instruments. 

3.  I won’t say intelligent design creationist, as that makes no sense. Organisms are clearly not intelligently designed, as anyone familiar with their workings can attest

Drummond, C. & B. Fischhoff (2017). “Individuals with greater science literacy and education have more polarized beliefs on controversial science topics.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114: 9587-9592.

After the March for Science, What Now?

Recently, I contributed to a project that turned healthy human tissues into an earlier stage of pancreatic cancer—a disease that carries a dismal 5-year survival rate of 5 percent.


When I described our project to a friend, she asked, “why in the world would you want to grow cancer in a lab?” I explained that by the time a patient learns that he has pancreatic cancer, the tumor has spread throughout the body. At that point, the patient typically has less than a year to live and his tumor cells have racked up a number of mutations, making clinical trials and molecular studies of pancreatic cancer evolution downright difficult. For this reason, our laboratory model of pancreatic cancer was available to scientists who wanted to use it to find the biological buttons that turn healthy cells into deadly cancer. By sharing our discovery, we wanted to enable others in developing drugs to treat cancer and screening tests to diagnose patients early. The complexity of this process demonstrates that science is a team effort that involves lots of time, money, and the brainpower of highly-trained individuals working together toward a single goal.


Many of the challenges we face today—from lifestyle diseases, to the growing strains of antibiotic-resistant superbugs in hospitals, to the looming energy crisis—require scientific facts and solutions. And although there’s never a guarantee of success, scientists persist in hopes that our collective discoveries will reverberate into the future. However, as a corollary, hindering scientific progress means a loss of possibilities.


Unfortunately, the deceleration of scientific progress seems likely possibility. In March, the White House released a document called “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again,” which describes deep cuts to some of the country’s most important funding agencies for science.


As it stands, the National Institutes of Health is set to lose nearly a fifth of its budget; the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, $900 million; and the Environmental Protection Agency, a 31.5 percent budget cut worth $2.6 billion. Imagine the discoveries that could have saved our lives or created jobs, which will instead languish solely as unsupported hypotheses in the minds of underfunded scientists.


Scientists cannot remain idle on the sidelines; we must be active in making the importance of scientific research known. Last weekend’s March on Science drew tens of thousands of people around more than 600 rallies across the world, but the challenge now lies in harnessing the present momentum and energy to make sustained efforts to maintain government funding for a wide range of scientific projects.


The next step is to get involved in shaping public opinion and policy. As it stands, Americans on both sides of the political spectrum have expressed ambivalence about the validity of science on matters ranging from climate change to childhood vaccinations. Academics can start tempering the public’s unease toward scientific authority and increase public support for the sciences by stepping off the ivory tower. Many researchers are already engaging with the masses by posting on social media, penning opinion articles, and appearing on platforms aimed at public consumption (Youtube channels, TED, etc). A researcher is her own best spokesperson in explaining the importance of her work and the scientific process; unfortunately, a scientist’s role as an educator in the classroom and community is often shoved out by the all-encompassing imperative to publish or perish. As a profession, we must become more willing to step out of our laboratories to engage with the public and educate the next generation of science-savvy citizens.


In addition, many scientists have expressed interest in running for office, including UC Berkeley’s Michael Eisen (who also a co-founder of PLOS). When asked by Science why he was considering a run for senate, Eisen responded:


“My motivation was simple. I’m worried that the basic and critical role of science in policymaking is under a bigger threat than at any point in my lifetime. We have a new administration and portions of Congress that don’t just reject science in a narrow sense, but they reject the fundamental idea that undergirds science: That we need to make observations about the world and make our decisions based on reality, not on what we want it to be. For years science has been under political threat, but this is the first time that the whole notion that science is important for our politics and our country has been under such an obvious threat.”


If scientists can enter into the house and senate in greater numbers, they will be able to inject scientific sense into the discussions held by members of legislature whose primary backgrounds are in business and law.


Science is a bipartisan issue that should not be bogged down by the whims of political machinations. We depend on research to address some of the most pressing problems of our time, and America’s greatness lies in part on its leadership utilizing science as an exploration of physical truths and a means of overcoming our present limitations and challenges.



Check out Yoo Jung’s book aimed at helping college students excel in science, What Every Science Student Should Know (University of Chicago Press)

Repost: Choose-Your-Own Experiment: Active Learning in Introductory Biology Courses

Source: Choose-Your-Own Experiment: Active Learning in Introductory Biology Courses, PLOS ECR Community


What should undergraduate students learn in an introductory biology class? Traditionally, these classes seek to give students a broad background in basic biology, and they often require a great deal of memorization. Memorization-heavy courses tend to be difficult and unpopular, leading many students to choose non-STEM majors. These types of courses also fail to teach students the problem-solving skills needed in more advanced classes or graduate-level studies.

To reform undergraduate science education, researchers and scientific societies like the American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS) have called for inquiry-based scientific education. Such methods promote student engagement, creative thinking, and positive attitudes toward science, but they can be difficult to implement in large lecture classes. A new study in PLOS Biology describes a real-life case study successfully implemented in biology classes with more than 175 students. Not only did 100% of surveyed students enjoy this “choose-your-own-experiment” activity, but over 99% (344 of 346) said it was useful to their learning.

An Inexplicable Disease: A Case Study with a Twist

The case study An Inexplicable Disease begins with an introduction to the three major types of disease epidemics: infectious, environmental, or genetically inherited. After this short primer, students learn about a mysterious disease that has arisen in an unnamed isolated island tribe. Tribe members experience sudden onset symptoms – first a strange walk, then slurred speech, facial tics, and uncontrollable laughter. Once the first symptoms occur, death is certain within 3-6 months. Students are placed into roles as physicians and anthropologists, instructed to gather information about the cause of the disease, with the goal of presenting at a conference in two years experimental time.

As students dive into the case, they can choose how to approach the problem. Options include trying to study the disease in lab animals, beginning a microbiological or epidemiological study, or learning more about the behaviors and culture of the tribe. With each choice comes more information about the disease (Figure 1), and student groups collaborate at the mock-conference to try to fit the pieces together. While traditional case studies ask students to determine why researchers made a certain decision, An Inexplicable Disease casts the students as researchers, allowing them to see firsthand the challenges and complexities of practical science.

kuru-1Figure 1. Choose-your-own-experiment options available to students in the physician group. Students must choose from different types of experiments, balancing time and feasibility. Figure from Serrano et al., licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

In An Inexplicable Disease, students are unable to acquire all the information necessary to solve the problem at hand, despite performing logical experiments. At the end of the interactive activity period, the instructor reveals that the mystery disease is kuru and introduces students to Carleton Gajdusek, the scientist from the case study. Gajdusek was unable to unravel the mystery of kuru until he met William Hadlow, a scientist studying scrapie, a degenerative brain disease affecting sheep. Since kuru and scrapie have similar symptoms, Hadlow hypothesized that kuru was infectious, like scrapie, and encouraged Gajdusek to conduct experiments in non-human primates. It took eight years from Gajdusek’s first visit to the island to show that kuru was infectious.

Based on their findings from the interactive activity, students understand that kuru is not a typical infectious disease. In part II of the mini-lecture, the instructor discusses Stanley Prusiner’s work on protein-only disease agents (prions). Students then learn about the evidence for prion agents causing scrapie and kuru, as well as the prion-like behavior of amyloid beta. As amyloid beta plays a role in Alzheimer’s disease pathology, this example shows students that prions are relevant to their lives.

Kuru as a Teaching Tool

To learn more about the inspiration for and success of An Inexplicable Disease, I spoke to Justin Hines, the author of the case study. Now an assistant professor at Lafayette College, Hines designed An Inexplicable Disease as a postdoctoral fellow participating in the Wisconsin Program for Scientific Teaching. He had read Richard Rhodes’ Deadly Feasts, which chronicles Gajdusek’s investigation of the kuru outbreak, and wondered if he could “present that information in a way that would allow students to feel [Gajdusek’s] confusion.”

Hines said he was pleasantly surprised by the student response to An Inexplicable Disease. “In general, the reaction to [An Inexplicable Disease] has been just wonderful…students love the mystery and the game-like nature of the activity.” To spread the word and obtain feedback from other instructors, Hines presented the case study at multiple meetings of the Society for the Advancement of Biology Education Research (SABER). At each meeting, he provided his email address and asked instructors interested in the activity to contact him. In total, Hines estimated that 70-80 instructors have used the activity, again with uniformly positive feedback. “The really surprising thing was that there were no revisions. I never once got a comment saying that I should do this differently.”

In my mind, An Inexplicable Disease is an ideal case study because it allows students to practice science using real-life research scenarios. Students must collaborate and cooperate to learn more about the disease rather than passively retracing a scientist’s steps. For Hines and his colleagues, the choose-your-own experiment style shows students that the process of scientific inquiry is important, even if you’re not able to answer the question originally posed. Students also get a taste of how difficult scientific research is; the limited time and resources they’re allotted echo the practical and financial constraints familiar to researchers.

It’s not just the style of An Inexplicable Disease that makes it so effective – I find that the subject matter also plays an important role. Kuru and other prion diseases represent a paradigm shift in microbiology. All other infectious agents carry genetic material so that they can replicate and spread – in contrast, prions can propagate with just protein. In choosing an atypical, surprising topic, Serrano et al. demonstrate to students that science is not static, but ever-evolving. Learning about the messiness of biology makes the subject much more tangible and exciting to students, and 96% of those surveyed said that the activity changed their view of scientific inquiry.

To further quantify how this activity benefited students, Serrano et al. conducted an analysis of student attitudes towards science using questions from the Colorado Learning Attitudes About Science – Biology (CLASS-BIO) survey. This well-established survey compares student-provided answers to true-false questions to those given by scientists; an answer matching the scientist response is considered expert-like. For seven of nine questions asked, the percentage of students with an expert-like response improved significantly after the kuru activity, indicating that they better understood and were more excited about scientific inquiry (Figure 2). Based on the success of An Inexplicable Disease, Hines says he has since written other case studies that he incorporates into his classes.

kuru-2Figure 2. An Inexplicable Disease improved student perceptions of science. This sub-analysis of 195 students took place over 2 years and included students in five independent sections of introductory biology. Questions 1-7 were taken from CLASS-Bio; questions 8-9 were developed by Serrano et al. Figure from Serrano et al., licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

When designing An Inexplicable Disease, Hines’ goal was to create a concise case study that could be completed in a single lecture period. Instructors have then taken this activity and used it in different ways, for example, alongside lectures on protein structure, or as a first day of class activity. An Inexplicable Disease can serve as an introduction to active learning, helping students feel more comfortable with problem-solving and class discussion. The case study also translates well to lectures >100 students, although TA assistance may be necessary to help distribute materials and answer individual questions.

As an early career researcher, I believe that introductory science courses aren’t just about acquiring knowledge; they should also teach students how to think critically and scientifically by developing and testing hypotheses. Even if they don’t choose a STEM major, students who experience the process of scientific inquiry are more likely to become science literate adults interested in supporting scientific research. Fittingly, Serrano et al. have used An Inexplicable Disease in a variety of class types, including microbiology for non-majors, introductory biology, and advanced biochemistry. Their flexible content works in many settings because it makes the scientific method real and exciting for students.

As institutions around the world work to build better science curricula, I feel that interactive activities like An Inexplicable Disease should be given space alongside traditional classroom lectures. For this reason, Hines and his colleagues chose to publish their approach in the open access journal PLOS Biology. “The idea is that by publishing it we can reach broad audience of biology educators. We’ve provided enough material that people can try out the activity if they’re interested.”

References and Additional Reading

Featured image: Science Careers in Search of Women 2009, by Argonne National Laboratory – licensed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Serrano A, Liebner J, and Hines JK. Cannibalism, Kuru, and Mad Cows: Prion Disease as a “Choose-Your-Own-Experiment” Case Study to Simulate Scientific Inquiry in Large Lectures. PLoS Biol 14(3): e1002425.

AAAS. Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action. 2011.

Brandforth SE et al. University Learning: Improve Undergraduate Science Education. Nature. 15 Jul 2015.

Waldrop MM. Why We Are Teaching Science Wrong, and How to Make it Right. Nature. 15 Jul 2015.

White House honors exceptional student scientists in sixth and final Science Fair

Extraordinary student scientists from across the United States are coming to the White House for the Obama administration’s sixth and final science fair. This year’s cohort of student scientists share creative solutions to some of the world’s greatest challenges, such as 17-year-old Olivia Hallisey’s award-winning Ebola diagnostic test, which doesn’t rely on a cold chain, to nine-year-old Jacob Leggette, whose entrepreneurial spirit connected him with 3D printers, which he has used to manufacture toys and games. Meet all the participants in the White House Science Fair here.

While the student scientists exhibiting their work at the Sixth Annual White House Science Fair span grades K-12 and come from many different backgrounds and hometowns across the U.S., the average student does not have access to the resources and mentorship to make these projects possible. In 2013, the PLOS SciEd Blog took a critical look at top-tier student science fairs and questions whether these competitions recognize talent or privilege. An excerpt from the post is included below:

The room is crowded with row after row of trifold poster boards and judges squinting and taking notes. Among the posters illustrating the effects of soil character on worm health, or the effectiveness of hand sanitizer, I see a project on amino acid substitution due to missense mutations. I’m judging the middle school division, but this project is at the level of a high school or even college student. When it comes time to decide the winners, I battle the other judges who favor complex project topics over soundness of experimental design. The owner of the missense mutation project had access to resources and connections not shared by the students testing soil and hand-sanitizer. There are clearly two project tiers within the competition, and they aren’t separated by scientific understanding, but by access to the professional scientific world. If the mutation project wins over soil character, does it mean we are punishing students who don’t have pre-existing science connections?

Science fairs: rewarding talent or privilege? by Erin Salter.

The White House Science Fair starts at 1pm EST. Watch a live stream on the White House website and follow along on social media at #WHScienceFair!

Photo courtesy of the White House, taken at 2010 Science Fair. October 18, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza).

From the archives: Why I don’t believe in science…and students shouldn’t either

As I have been preparing for my last post on SciEd, I’ve reflected on why I became a science educator to begin with.  And I realize it’s because I strongly believe that knowledge is an important tool to improve our lives and it should be shared with others.  This is strange however, because even though I have this belief, I don’t believe in science. So why am I so passionate about something I don’t believe in?

Science and Belief

Science is how we describe the natural world, and if you search the web for “what is science,” three words tend to come up more often than others: observation, experiment, and evidence. Observations and experiments may not be perfect, even at the limits of our technologies, and interpretations may be flawed, but it’s the evidence that supports, or doesn’t, an argument that is the most important.  And we choose to either accept it, or not.

I wanted to get an on-the-spot response from a scientist, so I asked one of my colleagues at work, Dr. Briana Pobiner, a paleoanthropologist, “You believe in evolution, right?”  I was surprised by how quickly she answered “I don’t believe in evolution – I accept the evidence for evolution.” The believing isn’t what makes evolution true or not, it’s that there is evidence that supports it.

Many people will distinguish a belief from knowledge, in that knowledge requires evidence, and truth does not. Illustration: Jonathon Rosen
Many people will distinguish a belief from knowledge, in that knowledge requires evidence, and belief does not. Illustration: Jonathon Rosen

There are plenty of other scientists out there that don’t like the use of the word “believe.”  Kevin Padian, of the University of California, Berkeley, wrote an open-access article about science and evolution, entitled “Correcting some common misrepresentations of evolution in textbooks and the media.” He states:

“Saying that scientists ‘believe’ their results suggests, falsely, that their acceptance is not based on evidence, but is based somehow on faith.”

The closeness of belief to faith, belief in something without proof, seems to be a reason a number of scientists disapprove of the word.  It does tend to introduce religion, which describes the supernatural, something that science cannot accomplish.

Padian continues:

“…it is about the quality of the evidence: scientists accept their results as the best explanation of the problem that we have at present, but we recognize that our findings are subject to reevaluation as new evidence comes to light.”

This same sentiment of evolving understandings can be heard in Holly Dunsworth’s audio essay “I Am Evolution” on NPR’s This I Believe (ironically, I might add).

I reached out to Holly and she told me that there were a number of “science-minded” individuals who did not agree with her essay.  They “think that ‘to believe’ is different than ‘to know’ because ‘knowledge’ to many is based on facts and ‘belief’ is not, so the verbs knowing and believing are therefore different.”  Where I agree with this perspective, Holly disagrees.  But she goes on to say that just having the belief or knowledge is fine, no matter what word is used.  (New: Please read Holly’s response to this posting here.)


Teaching process of science, not belief in science

Science, as we know, is not just some body of facts.  It is a detailed process of observation, experiment, interpretation, review, and even a little bit of luck and chance.  And unlike a linear list of instructions, it is an ongoing, iterative process that can jump to any other step in the process, as illustrated at Berkley’s “Understanding Science” webpage.  This is how science should be, and usually is, taught.

Unfortunately, it is impossible for every teacher in every school out there to reproduce every experiment for their students to have a first hand account of the evidence.  This means that in almost all classrooms there is a degree of memorizing facts to understand particular concepts.  So to an extent you might say that the teachers and students need to have some faith in the publisher that those facts are real, and the other scientists who reviewed the research we also legitimate.

Not every student can repeat every experiment ever done, but new advances are built upon this previous knowledge. Photo by Cameron Bennett
Not every student can repeat every experiment ever done, but new advances are built upon this previous knowledge. Photo by Cameron Bennett

But we do manage to continue advancing despite of this.  Leaps and bounds in technologies and scientific research are made by building upon previously vetted and accepted research.  Every generation keeps learning newer technologies and up to date research earlier in their education.  Sometimes these new leaps and bounds may produce new evidence that causes us to reevaluate our previous findings.  But this is still a part of science, an ongoing and dynamic process that continues to bring new questions and answers.

So, no, I do not believe in science.  Maybe you could say I believe science.  But for sure, I accept the evidence produced through science and that its findings may some day change.

But what about you — do you believe in science?