From the Science March to the Classroom: Recognizing science in politics and politics in science

Jeanne Garbarino (with edits by Mike Klymkowsky)

Purely scientific discussions are hallmarked by objective, open, logical, and skeptical thought; they can describe and explain natural phenomena or provide insights into a broader questions. At the same time, scientific discussions are generally incomplete and tentative (sometimes for well understood reasons). True advocates of the scientific method appreciate the value of its skeptical and tentative approach, and are willing to revise even long-held positions in response to new, empirically-derived evidence or logical contradictions. Over time, science’s scope and conclusions have expanded and evolved dramatically; they provide an increasingly accurate working model of a wide range of processes, from the formation of the universe to the functioning of the human mind. The result is that the ubiquity of science’s impacts on society are clear and growing. However, discussing and debating the details of how science works, and the current consensus view on various phenomena, such as global warming or the causes of cancer or autism, is very different from discussing and debating how a scientific recommendation fits into a societal framework. As described in a recent National Academies Press report on Communicating Science Effectively  [link], “the decision to communicate science [outside of academia] always involves an ethical component. Choices about what scientific evidence to communicate and when, how, and to whom, are a reflection of values.”

Over the last ~150 years, the accelerating pace of advances in science and technology have enabled future sustainable development, but they have also disrupted traditional social and economic patterns. Closing coal mines in response to climate predictions (and government regulations) may be sensible when viewed broadly, but are disruptive to those who have, for generations, made a living mining coal. Similarly, a number of prognosticators have speculated on the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence on traditional socioeconomic roles and rules. Whether such impacts are worth the human costs is rarely explicitly considered and discussed in the public forum, or the classroom. As members of the scientific community, our educational and outreach efforts must go beyond simply promoting an appreciation of, and public support for science. They must also consider its limitations, as well as the potential ethical and disruptive effects on individuals, communities, and/or societies. Making policy decisions with large socioeconomic impacts based on often tentative models raises risks of alienating the public upon which modern science largely depends.

Citizens, experts or not, are often invited to contribute to debates and discussions surrounding science and technology at the local and national levels. Yet, many people are not provided with the tools to fully and effectively engage in these discussions, which involves critically analyzing the scope, resolution, and stability of scientific conclusions. As such, the acceptance or rejection of scientific pronouncements is often framed as an instrument of political power, casting a shadow on core scientific principles and processes, framing scientists as partisan players in a political game. The watering down of the role of science and science-based policies in the public sphere, and the broad public complacency associated with (often government-based, regulatory) efforts, is currently being challenged by the international March For Science effort. The core principles and goals of this initiative [link] are well articulated, and, to my mind, representative of a democratic society. However, a single march on a single day is not sufficient to promote a deep social transformation, and promote widespread dispassionate argumentation and critical thinking. Perspectives on how scientific knowledge can help shape current and future events, as well as the importance of recognizing both the implications and limits of science, are perspectives that must be taught early, often, and explicitly. Social or moral decisions are not mutually exclusive from scientific evidence or ideas, but overlap is constrained by the gates set by values that are held.

In this light, I strongly believe the sociopolitical nature of science in practice must be taught alongside traditional science content. Understanding the human, social, economic and broader (ecological) costs of action AND inaction can be used to highlight the importance of framing science in a human context. If the expectation is for members of our society to be able to evaluate and weigh in on scientific debates at all levels, I believe we are morally obligated to supply future generations with the tools required for full participation. This posits that scientists and science educators, together with historian, philosophers, and economists, etc., need to go beyond the teaching of simple facts and theories by considering how these facts and theories developed over time, their impact on people’s thinking, as well as the socioeconomic forces that shape societies. Highlighting the sociopolitical implications of science-based ideas in classrooms can also motivate students to take a greater interest in scientific learning in particular, and related social and political topics in general. It can help close the gap between what is learned in school and what is required for the critical evaluation of scientific applications in society, and how scientific ideas can and should be evaluated when it comes to social policy or person beliefs.

A “science in a social context” approach to science teaching may also address the common student question, “When will I ever use this?” All too often, scientific content in schools is presented in ways that are abstract, decontextualized, and can feel irrelevant to students. Such an approach can leave a student unable or unwilling to engage in meaningful and substantive discussions on the applications and limitations of science in society. The entire concept of including cost-benefit analyses when considering the role of science in shaping decisions is often over-looked, as if scientific conclusions are black and white. Furthermore, the current culture of science in classrooms leaves little room for students to assess how scientific information does and does not align with their cultural identities, often framing science as inherently conflicting or alien, forcing a choice between one way of seeing the world over the other, when a creative synthesis seems more reasonable. Shifting science education paradigms toward a strategy that promotes “education through science” (as opposed to “science through education”) recognizes student needs and motivations as critical to learning, and opens up channels for introducing science as something that is relevant and enriching to their lives. Centered on the German philosophy of Allgemeinbildung [link] that describes “the competence for participation in critical dialogue on currently important matters,” this approach has been found to be effective in motivating students to develop the necessary skills to implement empirical evidence when forming arguments and making decisions.

In extending the idea of the perceived value of science in sociopolitical debates, students can build important frameworks for effectively engaging with society in the future. A relevant example is the increasing accessibility of genome editing technology, which represents an area of science poised to deeply impact the future of society. In a recent report [link] on the ethics of genome editing, assembled by an panel of clinicians and scientists (experts), it is recommended that the United States should proceed — cautiously — with genome editing studies on human embryos. However, as pointed out [link], this panel failed to include ANY public participation in this decision. This effort, fundamentally ignores “a more conscious evaluation of how this impacts social standing, stigma and identity, ethics that scientists often tend to cite pro forma and then swiftly scuttle.” As this discussion increasingly shifts into the mainstream, it will be essential to engage with the public in ways that promote a more careful and thoughtful analysis of scientific issues [link], as opposed to hyperbolic fear mongering (as seen in regard to most GMO discussions)[link] or reserving genetic engineering to the hyper-affluent. Another, more timely example, involves the the level at which an individual’s genome be used to predict a future outcome or set of outcomes, and whether this information can be used by employers in any capacity [link]. By incorporating a clear description of how science is practiced (including the factors that influence what is studied, and what is done with the knowledge generated), alongside the transfer of traditional scientific knowledge, we can help provide future citizens with tools for critical evaluation as they navigate these uncharted waters.

It is also worth noting tcorrupted sciencehat the presentation of science in a sociopolitical contexts can emphasize learning of more than just science. Current approaches to education tend to compartmentalize academic subjects, framing them as standalone lessons and philosophies. Students go through the school day motions, attending English class, then biology, then social studies, then trigonometry, etc., and the natural connections among subject areas are often lost. When framing scientific topics in the context of sociopolitical discussions and debates, stu
dents have more opportunities to explore aspects of society that are, at face value, unrelated to science.

Drawing from lessons commonly taught in American History class, the Manhattan Project [link] offers an excellent opportunity to discuss the fundamentals of nuclear chemistry as well as sociopolitical implications of a scientific discovery. At face value, harnessing nuclear fission marked a dramatic milestone for science. However, when this technology was pursued by the United States government during World War II — at the urging of the famed physicist Albert Einstein and others — it opened up the possibility of an entirely new category of warfare, impacting individuals and communities at all levels. The reactions set off by the Manhattan Project, and the consequent 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are ones that are still felt in international power politics, agriculture, medicine, ecology, economics, research ethics, transparency in government, and, of course, the Presidency of the United States. The Manhattan Project represents an excellent case study on the relationship between science, technology, and society, as well as the project’s ongoing influence on these relationships. The double-edged nature often associated with scientific discoveries are important considerations of the scientific enterprise, and should be taught to students accordingly.

A more meaningful approach to science education requires including the social aspects of the scientific enterprise. When considering a heliocentric view of the solar system, it is worthwhile recognizing its social impacts as well as its scientific foundations (particularly before Kepler). If we want people to see science as a human enterprise that can inspire rather than dictate decisions and behaviors, it will require resifting how science — and scientists — are viewed in the public eye. As written here [link]. we need to restore the relationship between scientific knowledge and social goals by specifically recognizing how

'So... cutting my funding, eh? Well, I've got a pair of mutant fists that say otherwise!'
‘So… cutting my funding, eh? Well, I’ve got a pair of mutant fists that say otherwise!’

science can be used, inappropriately, to drive public opinion. As an example, in the context of CO2-driven global warming, one could (with equal scientific validity) seek to reduce CO2 generation or increase CO2 sequestration. Science does not tell us which is better from a human perspective (although it could tell us which is likely to be easier, technically). While science should inform relevant policy, we must also acknowledge the limits of science and how it fits into many human contexts. There is clearly a need for scientists to increase participation in public discourse, and explicitly consider the uncertainties and risks (social, economic, political) associated with scientific observations. Additionally, scientists need to recognize the limits of their own expertise.

A pertinent example was the call by Paul Ehrlich to limit, in various draconian ways, human reproduction – a political call well beyond his expertise. In fact, recognizing when someone has gone beyond what science can legitimately tell us [link] could help rebuild respect for the value of science-based evidence. Scientists and science educators need to be cognizant of these limits, and genuinely listen to the valid concerns and hesitations held by many in society, rather than dismiss them. The application of science has been, and will always be, a sociopolitical issue, and the more we can do to prepare future decision makers, the better society will be.

Jeanne Garbarino, PhD, Director of Science Outreach, The Rockefeller University, NY, NY

Jeanne earned herJGarbarino Ph.D. in metabolic biology from Columbia University, followed by a postdoc in the Laboratory of Biochemical Genetics and Metabolism at The Rockefeller University, where she now serves as Director of Science Outreach. In this role, she works to provide K-12 communities with equitable access to authentic biomedical research opportunities and resources. You can find Jeanne on social media under the handle @JeanneGarb.

The pernicious effects of disrespecting the constraints of science

By Mike Klymkowsky

Recent political events and the proliferation of “fake news” and the apparent futility of fact checking in the public domain have led me to obsess about the role played by the public presentation of science. “Truth” can often trump reality, or perhaps better put, passionately held beliefs can overwhelm a circumspect worldview based on a critical and dispassionate analysis of empirically established facts and theories. Those driven by various apocalyptic visions of the world, whether religious or political, can easily overlook or corrupted sciencetrivialize evidence that contradicts their assumptions and conclusions. While historically there have been periods during which non-empirical presumptions are called into question, more often than not such periods have been short-lived. Some may claim that the search for absolute truth, truths significant enough to sacrifice the lives of others for, is restricted to the religious, they are sadly mistaken – political, often explicitly anti-religious  movements are also susceptible, often with horrific consequences, think Nazism and communist-inspired apocalyptic purges. The history of eugenics and forced sterilization based on flawed genetic and ideological premises have similar roots.

Given the seductive nature of belief-based “Truth”, many turned to science as a bulwark against wishful and arational thinking. The evolving social and empirical (data-based) nature of the scientific enterprise, beginning with guesses as to how the world (or rather some small part of the world) works, then following the guess’s logical implications together with the process of testing those implications through experiment or observation, leading to the revision (or abandonment) of the original guess, moving it toward hypothesis and then, as it becomes more explanatory and accurately predictive, and as those predictions are confirmed, into a theory.  So science is a dance between speculation and observation. In contrast to a free form dance, the dance of science is controlled by a number of rigid, and oppressive to some, constraints [see Feynman &  Rothman 2020. How does Science Really work].

Perhaps surprisingly, this scientific enterprise has converged onto a small set of over-arching theories and universal laws that appear to explain much of what is observable, these include the theory of general relativity, quantum and atomic theory, the laws of thermodynamics, and the theory of evolution. With the noticeable exception of relativity and quantum mechanics, these conceptual frameworks appear to be compatible with one another. As an example, organisms, and behaviors such as consciousness, obey and are constrained by, well established and (apparently) universal physical and chemical rules.

endosymbiosis-1.fwA central constraint on scientific thinking is that what cannot in theory be known is not a suitable topic for scientific discussion. This leaves outside of the scope of science a number of interesting topics, ranging from what came before the “Big Bang” to the exact steps in the origin of life. In the latter case, the apparently inescapable conclusion that all terrestrial organisms share a complex “Last Universal Common Ancestor” (LUCA) makes theoretically unconfirmable speculations about pre-LUCA living systems outside of science.  While we can generate evidence that the various building blocks of life can be produced abiogenically (a process begun with Wohler’s synthesis of urea) we can only speculate as to the systems that preceded LUCA.

Various pressures have led many who claim to speak scientifically (or to speak for science) to ignore the rules of the scientific enterprise – they often act as if their are no constraints, no boundaries to scientific speculation. Consider the implications of establishing “astrobiology” programs based on speculation (rather than observations) presented with various levels of certainty as to the ubiquity of life outside of Earth [the speculations of Francis Crick and Leslie Orgel on “directed panspermia”: and the psuedoscientific Drake equation come to mind, see Michael Crichton’s famous essay on Aliens and global warming]. Yet such public science pronouncements appear to ignore (or dismiss) the fact that we know, and can study, only one type of life (at the moment), the descendants of LUCA. They appear untroubled when breaking the rules and abandoning the discipline that has made science a powerful, but strictly constrained human activity.

Whether life is unique to Earth or not requires future explorations and discoveries that may (or given the technological hurdles involved, may not) occur. Similarly postulating theoretically unobservable alternative universes or the presence of some form of consciousness in inanimate objects [an unscientific speculation illustrated here] crosses a dividing line between belief for belief’s sake, and the scientific – it distorts and obscures the rules of the game, the rules that make the game worth playing [again, the Crichton article cited above makes this point]. A recent rather dramatic proposal from some in the physical-philosophical complex has been the claim that the rules of prediction and empirical confirmation (or rejection) are no longer valid – that we can abandon requiring scientific ideas to make observable predictions [see Ellis & Silk]. It is as if objective reality is no longer the benchmark against which scientific claims are made; that perhaps mathematical elegance (see Sabine Hossenfelder’s Losts in Math) or spiritual comfort are more important – and well they might be (more important) but they are outside of the limited domain of science. At the 2015 “Why Trust a Theory” meeting, the physicist Carlo Rovelli concluded “by pointing out that claiming that a theory is valid even though no experiment has confirmed it destroys the confidence that society has in science, and it also misleads young scientists into embracing sterile research programs.” [quote from Massimo’s Pigliucci’s Footnotes to Plato blog].

While the examples above are relatively egregious, it is worth noting that various pressures for glory, fame, and funding can to impact science more frequently – leading to claims that are less obviously non-scientific, but that bend (and often break) the scientific charter. Take, for example, claims about animal models of human diseases. Often the expediencies associated with research make the use of such animal models necessary and productive, but they remain a scientific compromise. While mice, rats, chimpanzees, and humans are related evolutionarily, they also carry distinct traits associated with each lineage’s evolutionary history, and the associated adaptive and non-adaptive processes and events associated with that history. A story from a few years back illustrates how the differences between the immune systems of mice and humans help explain why the search, in mice, for drugs to treat sepsis in humans was so relatively unsuccessful [Mice Fall Short as Test Subjects for Some of Humans’ Deadly Ills]. A similar type of situation occurs when studies in the mouse fail to explicitly acknowledge how genetic background influences experimental phenotypes [Effect of the genetic background on the phenotype of mouse mutations], as well as how details of experimental scenarios influence human relevance [Can Animal Models of Disease Reliably Inform Human Studies?].

Speculations that go beyond science (while hiding under the aegis of science – see any of a number of articles on quantum consciousness) – may seem just plain silly, but by abandoning the rules of science they erode the status of the scientific process.  How, exactly, would one distinguish a conscious from an unconscious electron?

In science (again as pointed out by Crichton) we do not agree through consensus but through data and respect for critical analyzed empirical observations. The laws of thermodynamics, general relativity, the standard model of particle physics, and evolution theory are conceptual frameworks that we are forced (if we are scientifically honest) to accept. Moreover the implications of these scientific frameworks can be annoying to some; there is no possibility of a “zero waste” process that involves physical objects, no free lunch (perpetual motion machine), no efficient, intelligently-designed evolutionary process (just blind variation and differential reproduction), and no zipping around the galaxy. The apparent limitation of motion to the speed of light means that a “Star Wars” universe is impossible – happily, I would argue, given the number of genocidal events that appear to be associated with that fictional vision – just too many storm troopers for my taste.

Whether our models for the behavior of Earth’s climate or the human brain can be completely accurate (deterministic), given the roles of chaotic and stochastic events in these systems, remains to be demonstrated; until they are, there is plenty of room for conflicting interpretations and prescriptions. That atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases are increasing due to human activities is unarguable, what it implies for future climate is less clear, and what to do about it (a social, political, and economic discussion informed but not determined by scientific observations) is another.

As we discuss science, we must teach (and continually remind ourselves, even if we are working scientific practitioners) about the limits of the scientific enterprise. As science educators, one of our goals needs to be to help students develop an appreciation of the importance of an honest and critical attitude to observations and conclusions, a recognition of the limits of scientific pronouncements. We need to explicitly identify, acknowledge, and respect the constraints under which effective science works and be honest in labeling when we have left scientific statements, lest we begin to walk down the path of little lies that morph into larger ones.  In contrast to politicians and other forms of religious and secular mystics, we should know better than to be seduced into abandoning scientific discipline, and all that that entails.

Minor update + figures reintroduced 20 October 2020

M.W. Klymkowsky  web site: