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.


Is a little science a dangerous thing?

Is the popularization of science encouraging a growing disrespect for scientific expertise? 
Do we need to reform science education so that students are better able to detect scientific BS? 

It is common wisdom that popularizing science by exposing the public to scientific ideas is an unalloyed good,  bringing benefits to both those exposed and to society at large. Many such efforts are engaging and entertaining, often taking the form of compelling images with quick cuts between excited sound bites from a range of “experts.” A number of science-centered programs, such PBS’s NOVA series, are particularly adept and/or addicted to this style. Such presentations introduce viewers to natural wonders, and often provide scientific-sounding, albeit often superficial and incomplete, explanations – they appeal to the gee-whiz and inspirational, with “mind-blowing” descriptions of how old, large, and weird the natural world appears to be. But there are darker sides to such efforts. Here I focus on one, the idea that a rigorous, realistic understanding of the scientific enterprise and its conclusions, is easy to achieve, a presumption that leads to unrealistic science education standards, and the inability to judge when scientific pronouncements are distorted or unsupported, as well as anti-scientific personal and public policy positions.That accurate thinking about scientific topics is easy to achieve is an unspoken assumption that informs much of our educational, entertainment, and scientific research system. This idea is captured in the recent NYT best seller “Astrophysics for people in a hurry” – an oxymoronic presumption. Is it possible for people “in a hurry” to seriously consider the observations and logic behind the conclusions of modern astrophysics? Can they understand the strengths and weaknesses of those conclusions? Is a superficial familiarity with the words used the same as understanding their meaning and possible significance? Is acceptance understanding?  Does such a cavalier attitude to science encourage unrealistic conclusions about how science works and what is known with certainty versus what remains speculation?  Are the conclusions of modern science actually easy to grasp?
The idea that introducing children to science will lead to an accurate grasp the underlying concepts involved, their appropriate application, and their limitations is not well supported [1]; often students leave formal education with a fragile and inaccurate understanding – a lesson made explicit in Matt Schneps and Phil Sadler’s Private Universe videos. The feeling that one understands a topic, that science is in some sense easy, undermines respect for those who actually do understand a topic, a situation discussed in detail in Tom Nichols “The Death of Expertise.” Under-estimating how hard it can be to accurately understand a scientific topic can lead to unrealistic science standards in schools, and often the trivialization of science education into recognizing words rather than understanding the concepts they are meant to convey.

The fact is, scientific thinking about most topics is difficult to achieve and maintain – that is what editors, reviewers, and other scientists, who attempt to test and extend the observations of others, are for – together they keep science real and honest. Until an observation has been repeated or confirmed by others, it can best be regarded as an interesting possibility, rather than a scientifically established fact.  Moreover, until a plausible mechanism explaining the observation has been established, it remains a serious possibility that the entire phenomena will vanish, more or less quietly (think cold fusion). The disappearing physiological effects of “power posing” comes to mind. Nevertheless the incentives to support even disproven results can be formidable, particularly when there is money to be made and egos on the line.

While power-posing might be helpful to some, even though physiologically useless, there are more dangerous pseudo-scientific scams out there. The gullible may buy into “raw water” (see: Raw water: promises health, delivers diarrhea) but the persistent, and in some groups growing, anti-vaccination movement continues to cause real damage to children (see Thousands of cheerleaders exposed to mumps).  One can ask oneself, why haven’t professional science groups, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), not called for a boycott of NETFLIX, given that NETFLIX continues to distribute the anti-scientific, anti-vaccination program VAXXED [2]?  And how do Oprah Winfrey and Donald Trump  [link: Oprah Spreads Pseudoscience and Trump and the anti-vaccine movement] avoid universal ridicule for giving credence to ignorant non-sense, and for disparaging the hard fought expertise of the biomedical community?  A failure to accept well established expertise goes along way to understanding the situation. Instead of an appreciation for what we do and do not know about the causes of autism (see: Genetics and Autism Risk & Autism and infection), there are desperate parents who turn to a range of “therapies” promoted by anti-experts. The tragic case of parents trying to cure autism by forcing children to drink bleach (see link) illustrates the seriousness of the situation.

So why do a large percentage of the public ignore the conclusions of disciplinary experts?  I would argue that an important driver is the way that science is taught and popularized [3]. Beyond the obvious fact that a range of politicians and capitalists (in both the West and the East) actively distain expertise that does not support their ideological or pecuniary positions [4], I would claim that the way we teach science, often focussing on facts rather than processes, largely ignoring the historical progression by which knowledge is established, and the various forms of critical analyses to which scientific conclusions are subjected to, combines with the way science is popularized, erodes respect for disciplinary expertise. Often our education systems fail to convey how difficult it is to attain real disciplinary expertise, in particular the ability to clearly articulate where ideas and conclusions come from and what they do and do not imply. Such expertise is more than a degree, it is a record of rigorous and productive study and useful contributions, and a critical and objective state of mind. Science standards are often heavy on facts, and weak on critical analyses of those ideas and observations that are relevant to a particular process. As Carl Sagan might say, we have failed to train students on how to critically evaluate claims, how to detect baloney (or BS in less polite terms)[5].

In the area of popularizing scientific ideas, we have allowed hype and over-simplification to capture the flag. To quote from a article by David Berlinski [link: Godzooks], we are continuously bombarded with a range of pronouncements about new scientific observations or conclusions and there is often a “willingness to believe what some scientists say without wondering whether what they say is true”, or even what it actually means.  No longer is the in-depth, and often difficult and tentative explanation conveyed, rather the focus is on the flashy conclusion (independent of its plausibility). Self proclaimed experts pontificate on topics that are often well beyond their areas of training and demonstrated proficiency – many is the physicist who speaks not only about the completely speculative multiverse, but on free will and ethical beliefs. Complex and often irreconcilable conflicts between organisms, such as those between mother and fetus (see: War in the womb), male and female (in sexually dimorphic species), and individual liberties and social order, are ignored instead of explicitly recognized, and their origins understood. At the same time, there are real pressures acting on scientific researchers (and the institutions they work for) and the purveyors of news to exaggerate the significance and broader implications of their “stories” so as to acquire grants, academic and personal prestige, and clicks.  Such distortions serve to erode respect for scientific expertise (and objectivity).

So where are the scientific referees, the individuals that are tasked to enforce the rules of the game; to call a player out of bounds when they leave the playing field (their area of expertise) or to call a foul when rules are broken or bent, such as the fabrication, misreporting, suppression, or over-interpretation of data, as in the case of the anti-vaccinator Wakefield. Who is responsible for maintaining the integrity of the game?  Pointing out the fact that many alternative medicine advocates are talking meaningless blather (see: On skepticism & pseudo-profundity)? Where are the referees who can show these charlatans the “red card” and eject them from the game?

Clearly there are no such referees. Instead it is necessary to train as large a percentage of the population as possible to be their own science referees – that is, to understand how science works, and to identify baloney when it is slung at them. When a science popularizer, whether for well meaning or self-serving reasons, steps beyond their expertise, we need to call them out of
bounds!  And when scientists run up against the constraints of the scientific process, as appears to occur periodically with theoretical physicists, and the occasional neuroscientist (see: Feuding physicists and The Soul of Science) we need to recognize the foul committed.  If our educational system could help develop in students a better understanding of the rules of the scientific game, and why these rules are essential to scientific progress, perhaps we can help re-establish both an appreciation of rigorous scientific expertise, as well as a respect for what is that scientists struggle to do.



Footnotes and references:

  1. And is it clearly understood that they have nothing to say as to what is right or wrong.
  2.  Similarly, many PBS stations broadcast pseudoscientific infomercials: for example see Shame on PBS, Brain Scam, and the Deepak Chopra’s anti-scientific Brain, Mind, Body, Connection, currently playing on my local PBS station. Holocaust deniers and slavery apologists are confronted much more aggressively.
  3.  As an example, the idea that new neurons are “born” in the adult hippocampus, up to now established orthodoxy, has recently been called into question: see Study Finds No Neurogenesis in Adult Humans’ Hippocampi
  4.  Here is a particular disturbing example: By rewriting history, Hindu nationalists lay claim to India
  5. Pennycook, G., J. A. Cheyne, N. Barr, D. J. Koehler and J. A. Fugelsang (2015). “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit.” Judgment and Decision Making 10(6): 549.

Go ahead and “teach the controversy:” it is the best way to defend science.

as long as teachers understand the science and its historical context

The role of science in modern societies is complex. Science-based observations and innovations drive a range of economically important, as well as socially disruptive, technologies. A range of opinion polls indicate that the American public “supports” science, while at the same time rejecting rigorously established scientific conclusions on topics ranging from the safety of genetically modified organisms and the role of vaccines in causing autism to the effects of burning fossil fuels on the global environment [Pew: Views on science and society]. Given that a foundational principle of science is that the natural world can be explained without calling on supernatural actors, it remains surprising that a substantial majority of people report that they believe that supernatural entities are involved in human evolution [as reported by the Gallup organization]; although the theistic percentage has been dropping  (a little) of late. This situation highlights the fact that when science intrudes on the personal or the philosophical (within which I include the theological and the  ideological), many people are willing to abandon the discipline of science to embrace explanations based on personal beliefs. These include the existence of a supernatural entity that cares for people, at least enough to create them, and that there are easily identifiable reasons why a child develops autism.

Where science appears to conflict with various non-scientific positions, the public has pushed back and rejected the scientific. This is perhaps best represented by the recent spate of “teach the controversy” legislative efforts, primarily centered on evolutionary theory and the reality of anthropogenic climate change [see Nature: Revamped ‘anti-science’ education bills], although we might expect to see, on more politically correct campuses, similar calls for anti-GMO, anti-vaccination, or gender-based curricula. In the face of the disconnect between scientific and non-scientific (philosophical, ideological, theological) personal views, I would suggest that an important part of the problem has didaskalogenic roots; that is, it arises from the way science is taught – all too often expecting students to memorize terms and master various heuristics (tricks) to answer questions rather than developing a self-critical understanding of ideas, their origins, supporting evidence, limitations, and practice in applying them.

 

Science is a social activity, based on a set of accepted core assumptions; it is not so much concerned with Truth, which could, in fact, be beyond our comprehension, but rather with developing a universal working knowledge, composed of ideas based on empirical observations that expand in their explanatory power over time to allow us to predict and manipulate various phenomena.  Science is a product of society rather than isolated individuals, but only rarely is the interaction between the scientific enterprise and its social context articulated clearly enough so that students and the general public can develop an understanding of how the two interact.  As an example, how many people appreciate the larger implications of the transition from an Earth to a Sun- or galaxy-centered cosmology?  All too often students are taught about this transition without regard to its empirical drivers and philosophical and sociological implications, as if the opponents at the time were benighted religious dummies. Yet, how many students or their teachers appreciate that as originally presented the Copernican system had more hypothetical epicycles and related Rube Goldberg-esque kludges, introduced to make the model accurate, than the competing Ptolemic Sun-centered system? Do students understand how Kepler’s recognition of elliptical orbits eliminated the need for such artifices and set the stage for Newtonian physics?  And how did the expulsion of humanity from the center to the periphery of things influence peoples’ views on humanity’s role and importance?

So how can education adapt to help students and the general public develop a more realistic understanding of how science works?  To my mind, teaching the controversy is a particularly attractive strategy, on the assumption that teachers have a strong grounding in the discipline they are teaching, something that many science degree programs do not achieve, as discussed below. For example, a common attack against evolutionary mechanisms relies on a failure to grasp the power of variation, arising from stochastic processes (mutation), coupled to the power of natural, social, and sexual selection. There is clear evidence that people find stochastic processes difficult to understand and accept [see Garvin-Doxas & Klymkowsky & Fooled by Randomness].  An instructor who is not aware of the educational challenges associated with grasping stochastic processes, including those central to evolutionary change, risks the same hurdles that led pre-molecular biologists to reject natural selection and turn to more “directed” processes, such as orthogenesis [see Bowler: The eclipse of Darwinism & Wikipedia]. Presumably students are even more vulnerable to intelligent-design  creationist arguments centered around probabilities.

The fact that single cell measurements enable us to visualize biologically meaningful stochastic processes makes designing course materials to explicitly introduce such processes easier [Biology education in the light of single cell/molecule studies].  An interesting example is the recent work on visualizing the evolution of antibiotic resistance macroscopically [see The evolution of bacteria on a “mega-plate” petri dish].

To be in a position to “teach the controversy” effectively, it is critical that students understand how science works, specifically its progressive nature, exemplified through the process of generating and testing, and where necessary, rejecting, clearly formulated and predictive hypotheses – a process antithetical to a Creationist (religious) perspective [a good overview is provided here: Using creationism to teach critical thinking].  At the same time, teachers need a working understanding of the disciplinary foundations of their subject, its core observations, and their implications. Unfortunately, many are called upon to teach subjects with which they may have only a passing familiarity.  Moreover, even majors in a subject may emerge with a weak understanding of foundational concepts and their origins – they may be uncomfortable teaching what they have learned.  While there is an implicit assumption that a college curriculum is well designed and effective, there is often little in the way of objective evidence that this is the case. While many of our dedicated teachers (particularly those I have met as part of the CU Teach program) work diligently to address these issues on their own, it is clear that many have not been exposed to a critical examination of the empirical observations and experimental results upon which their discipline is based [see Biology teachers often dismiss evolution & Teachers’ Knowledge Structure, Acceptance & Teaching of Evolution].  Many is the molecular biology department that does not require formal coursework in basic evolutionary mechanisms, much less a thorough consideration of natural, social, and sexual selection, and non-adaptive mechanisms, such as those associated with population bottlenecks and genetic drift, stochastic processes that play a key role in the evolution of many species, including humankind. Similarly, more ecologically- and physiologically-oriented majors are often “afraid” of the molecular foundations of evolutionary processes. As part of an introductory chemistry curriculum redesign project (CLUE), Melanie Cooper and her group at Michigan State University have found that students in conventional courses often fail to grasp key concepts, and that subsequent courses can sometimes fail to remediate the didaskalogenic damage done in earlier courses [see: an Achilles Heel in Chemistry Education].

 

The importance of a historical perspective: The power of scientific explanations are obvious, but they can become abstract when their historical roots are forgotten, or never articulated. A clear example is that the value of vaccination is obvious in the presence of deadly and disfiguring diseases; in their absence (due primarily to wide-spread vaccination), the value of vaccination can be called into question, resulting in the avoidable re-emergence of these diseases.  In this context, it would be important that students understand the dynamics and molecular complexity of biological systems, so that students can explain why it is that all drugs and treatments have potential side-effects, and how each individual’s genetic background influences these side-effects (although in the case of vaccination, such side effects do not include autism).

Often “controversy” arises when scientific explanations have broader social, political, or philosophical implications. Religious objections to evolutionary theory arise primarily, I believe, from the implication that we (humans) are not the result of a plan, created or evolved, but rather that we are accidents of mindless, meaningless, and often gratuitously cruel processes. The idea that our species, which emerged rather recently (that is, a few million years ago) on a minor planet on the edge of an average galaxy, in a universe that popped into existence for no particular reason or purpose ~14 billion years ago, can have disconcerting implications [link]. Moreover, recognizing that a “small” change in the trajectory of an asteroid could change the chance that humanity ever evolved [see: Dinosaur asteroid hit ‘worst possible place’] can be sobering and may well undermine one’s belief in the significance of human existence. How does it impact our social fabric if we are an accident, rather than the intention of a supernatural being or the inevitable product of natural processes?

Yet, as a person who firmly believes in the French motto of liberté, égalité, fraternité, laïcité, I feel fairly certain that no science-based scenario on the origin and evolution of the universe or life, or the implications of sexual dimorphism or racial differences, etc, can challenge the importance of our duty to treat others with respect, to defend their freedoms, and to insure their equality before the law. Which is not to say that conflicts do not inevitably arise between different belief systems – in my own view, patriarchal oppression needs to be called out and actively opposed where ever it occurs, whether in Saudi Arabia or on college campuses (e.g. UC Berkeley or Harvard).

This is not to say that presenting the conflicts between scientific explanations of phenomena, such as race, and non-scientific, but more important beliefs, such as equality under the law, is easy. When considering a number of natural cruelties, Charles Darwin wrote that evolutionary theory would claim that these are “as small consequences of one general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live  and the weakest die” note the absence of any reference to morality, or even sympathy for the “weakest”.  In fact, Darwin would have argued that the apparent, and overt cruelty that is rampant in the “natural” world is evidence that God was forced by the laws of nature to create the world the way it is, presumably a world that is absurdly old and excessively vast. Such arguments echo the view that God had no choice other than whether to create or not; that for all its flaws, evils, and unnecessary suffering this is, as posited by Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) and satirized by Voltaire in his novel Candide, the best of all possible worlds. Yet, as a member of a reasonably liberal, and periodically enlightened, society, we see it as our responsibility to ameliorate such evils, to care for the weak, the sick, and the damaged and to improve human existence; to address prejudice and political manipulation [thank you Supreme Court for ruling against race-based redistricting].  Whether anchored by philosophical or religious roots, many of us are driven to reject a scientific (biological) quietism (“a theology and practice of inner prayer that emphasizes a state of extreme passivity”) by actively manipulating our social, political, and physical environment and striving to improve the human condition, in part through science and the technologies it makes possible.

At the same time, introducing social-scientific interactions can be fraught with potential  controversies, particularly in our excessively politicized and self-righteous society. In my own introductory biology class (biofundamentals), we consider potentially contentious issues that include sexual dimorphism and selection and social evolutionary processes and their implications.  As an example, social systems (and we are social animals) are susceptible to social cheating and groups develop defenses against cheaters; how such biological ideas interact with historical, political and ideological perspectives is complex, and certainly beyond the scope of an introductory biology course, but worth acknowledging [PLoS blog link].

In a similar manner, we understand the brain as an evolved cellular system influenced by various experiences, including those that occur during development and subsequent maturation.  Family life interacts with genetic factors in a complex, and often unpredictable way, to shape behaviors.  But it seems unlikely that a free and enlightened society can function if it takes seriously the premise that we lack free-will and so cannot be held responsible for our actions, an idea of some current popularity [see Free will could all be an illusion]. Given the complexity of biological systems, I for one am willing to embrace the idea of constrained free will, no matter what scientific speculations are currently in vogue. Recognizing the complexities of biological systems, including the brain, with their various adaptive responses and feedback systems can be challenging. In this light, I am reminded of the contrast between the Doomsday scenario of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, and the data-based view of the late Hans Rosling in Don’t Panic – The Facts About Population.

All of which is to say that we need to see science not as authoritarian, telling us who we are or what we should do, but as a tool to do what we think is best and why it might be difficult to achieve. We need to recognize how scientific observations inform but do not dictate our decisions. We need to embrace the tentative, but strict nature of the scientific enterprise which, while it cannot arrive at “Truth” can certainly identify non-sense.

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 trivialize 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 premises have similar roots.

Copyright Sidney Harris
Copyright Sidney Harris; http://sciencecartoonspplus.com/ Please note: this is not a CCBY image; must contact copyright holder above.

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].

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.

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Last_universal_common_ancestor
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Last_universal_common_ancestor

A 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 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, 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 [such unscientific speculation as 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 or spiritual comfort are more important – and well they might be (more important) but they are also 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 tend 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 mantel 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 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.

 

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.

Courtesy NASA.As we discuss science, we must teach (and remind ourselves, even if we are working scientific practitioners) about the limits of the scientific enterprise. As science educators, one of our goals is 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.

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M.W. Klymkowsky  web site:  http://klymkowskylab.colorado.edu  email: klym@colorado.edu

 

 

 

 

Recognizing scientific literacy and illiteracy

The is the first of the blog posts prepared for the PLOS science-education blog site.  Mike Klymkowsky is a PLOS Biology author and PLOS ONE Academic Editor. For more about Mike’s work click on “About this Blog,” above.

By Mike Klymkowsky

Scientific literacy – what it is, how to recognize it, and how to help people achieve it through educational efforts, remains a difficult topic.  The latest attempt to inform the conversation is a recent National Academy report “Science Literacy: concepts, contexts, and consequences” (https://www.nap.edu/download/23595). While there is lots of substance to take away from the report, three quotes seem particularly telling to me. The first is from Roberts [1] that points out that scientific literacy has “become an umbrella concept with a sufficiently broad, composite meaning that it meant both everything, and nothing specific, about science education and the competency it sought to describe.”   The second quote, from the report’s authors, is that “In the field of  education, at least, the lack of consensus surrounding science literacy has not stopped it from occupying a prominent place in policy discourse(p. 2.6).  And finally, “the data suggested almost no relationship between general science knowledge and attitudes about genetically modified food, a potentially negative relationship between biology-specific knowledge and attitudes about genetically modified food, and a small, but negative relationship between that same general science knowledge measure and attitudes toward environmental science” (p. 5.4).

576px-Flammarion
“Flat Earth” The Flammarion engraving (1888) Wikipedia

Recognizing the scientifically illiterate

So, perhaps it would be useful to consider the question of scientific literacy from a different perspective, namely, how can we recognize a scientifically illiterate person from what they write or say? What clues imply illiteracy?[1]   To start, let us consider the somewhat simpler situation of standard literacy.  Assume we ask a person a question and that the question is clearly composed, we might expect the illiterate person to have trouble correctly interpreting what a reasonable answer should contain.  Constructing a literate answer implies two distinct abilities: the respondent needs to be able to  accurately interpret what the question asks and they need to recognize what an adequate answer contains. These are not innate skills; students need feedback and practice in both, particularly when the question is a scientific one. In my own experience with teaching, as well as data collected in the context of an introductory course [2], all to often a student’s answers consist of a single technical term, spoken (or written) as if a word = an argument or explanation. We need a more detailed response in order to accurately judge whether an answer addresses what the question asks (whether it is relevant) and whether it has a logical coherence and empirical foundations, information that is traditionally obtained through a Socratic interrogation.[2]  At the same time, an answer’s relevance and coherence serve as a proxy for whether the respondent understood (accurately interprets) what was being asked of them.

So what is added when we move to scientific in contrast to standard literacy, what is missing from the illiterate response.  At the simplest level we are looking for mistakes, irrelevancies, failures in logic, or in recognizing contradictions within the answer, explanation or critique. The presence of unnecessary language suggests, at the very least, a confused understanding of the situation.[3]  A second feature of a scientifically illiterate response is a failure to recognize the limits of scientific knowledge; this includes an explicit recognition of the tentative nature of science, combined with the fact that some things are, theoretically, unknowable scientifically.  For example, is “dark matter” real or might an alternative model of gravity remove its raison d’être?[4]  When people speculate about what existed before the “big bang” or what is happening in various unobservable parts of the multiverse, have they left science for fantasy.  Similarly, speculation on steps to the origin of life on Earth (including what types of organisms, or perhaps better put living or pre-living systems, existed before the “last universal common ancestor”), the presence of “consciousness” outside of organisms, or the probability of life elsewhere in the universe can be seen as transcending either what is knowable or likely to be knowable without new empirical observations.  While this can make scientific pronouncements somewhat less dramatic or engaging, respecting the limits of scientific discourse avoids doing violence to the foundations upon which the scientific enterprise is built.  It is worth being explicit, universal truth is beyond the scope of the scientific enterprise.

The limitations of scientific explanations

Acknowledging the limits of scientific explanations is a marker of understanding how science actually works.  As an example, while a drug may be designed to treat a particular disease, a scientifically literate person would reject the premise that any such drug would, given the nature of interactions with other molecular targets and physiological systems, be without side effects and that these side effects will vary depending upon the features (genetic, environmental, historic, physiological) of the individual taking the drug.  While science knowledge reflects a social consensus, it is constrained by rules of evidence and logic (although this might appear to be anachronistic in the current post-fact age).

Even though certain ideas are well established (Laws of Conservation and Thermodynamics, and a range of evolutionary mechanisms), it is possible to imagine exceptions (and revisions).  Moreover, since scientific inquiry is (outside of some physics departments) about a single common Universe, conclusions from different disciplines cannot contradict one another – such contradictions must inevitably be resolved through modification of one or the other discipline.  A classic example is Lord Kelvin’s estimate of the age of the Earth (~20-50 million years) and estimates of the time required for geological and evolutionary processes to produce the observed structure of the Earth and the diversity of life (hundreds of millions to billions of years), a contradiction resolved in favor of an ancient Earth by the discovery of radioactivity.

Scientific illiteracy in the scientific community

There are also suggestions of scientific illiteracy (or perhaps better put, sloppy and/or self-serving thinking) in much of the current “click-bait” approach to the public dissemination of scientific ideas and observations.  All too often, scientific practitioners, who we might expect to be as scientifically literate as possible, abandon the discipline of science to make claims that are over-arching and often self-serving (this is, after all, why peer-review is necessary).

A common example [of scientific illiteracy practiced by scientists and science communicators] is provided by studies of human disease in “model” organisms, ranging from yeasts to non-human primates. While there is no doubt that such studies have been, and continue to be critical to understanding how organisms work (and certainly deserving of public and private support) – their limitations need to be made explicit, while a mouse that displays behavioral defects (for a mouse) might well provide useful insights into the mechanisms involved in human autism, an autistic mouse may well be a scientific oxymoron.

Discouraging scientific illiteracy within the scientific community is challenging, particularly in the highly competitive, litigious,[5] and high stakes environment we currently find ourselves in.[6]  How to best help our students, both within and without scientific disciplines, avoid scientific illiteracy remains unclear, but is likely to involve establishing a culture of Socratic discourse (as opposed to posturing).  Understanding what a person is saying, what empirical data and assumptions it is based on, and what does it imply and or predict are necessary features of literate discourse.

Picture1M.W. Klymkowsky  web site:  http://klymkowskylab.colorado.edu  email: klym@colorado.edu Twitter @mikeklymkowsky

Literature cited:

  1. Roberts, D.A., Scientific literacy/science literacy. I SK Abell & NG Lederman (Eds.). Handbook of research on science education (pp. 729-780). 2007, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  2. Klymkowsky, M.W., J.D. Rentsch, E. Begovic, and M.M. Cooper, The design and transformation of Biofundamentals: a non-survey introductory evolutionary and molecular biology course. LSE Cell Biol Edu, in press., 2016. in press.
  3. Lee, H.-S., O.L. Liu, and M.C. Linn, Validating measurement of knowledge integration in science using multiple-choice and explanation items. Applied Measurement in Education, 2011. 24(2): p. 115-136.

4.         Henson, K., M.M. Cooper, and M.W. Klymkowsky, Turning randomness into meaning at the molecular level using Muller’s morphs. Biol Open, 2012. 1: p. 405-10.

[1] Assuming, of course, that what a person’s says reflects what they actually think, something that is not always the case.

[2] This is one reason why multiple-choice concept tests consistently over-estimate students’ understanding ( 3. Lee, H.-S., O.L. Liu, and M.C. Linn, Validating measurement of knowledge integration in science using multiple-choice and explanation items. Applied Measurement in Education, 2011. 24(2): p. 115-136.)

[3] We have used this kind of analysis to consider the effect of various learning activities 4.        Henson, K., M.M. Cooper, and M.W. Klymkowsky, Turning randomness into meaning at the molecular level using Muller’s morphs. Biol Open, 2012. 1: p. 405-10..

[4] http://curious.astro.cornell.edu/physics/108-the-universe/cosmology-and-the-big-bang/dark-matter/659-could-a-different-theory-of-gravity-explain-the-dark-matter-mystery-intermediate

[5] http://science.sciencemag.org/content/353/6303/977 and http://www.cjr.org/the_observatory/local_science_fraud_misses_nat.php

[6] See as an example: http://www.nature.com/news/bitter-fight-over-crispr-patent-heats-up-1.17961http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/03/accusations-errors-and-deception-fly-crispr-patent-fight

Why Statistics Should Be A Mandatory Part of High School Education

Back in 2007, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in Britain ruled that the oral health manufacturing giant Colgate could not use its claim that “More than 80% Of Dentists recommend Colgate” or that its brand was “used and recommended by most dentists.” These bans were based on the finding that Colgate had used deceptive statistics to derive its numbers.

 

For instance, when reading the original claim, consumers would likely think that four out of five dentists had recommended Colgate over its competitors. Instead, ASA revealed that dentists in the study were allowed to recommend more than one brand. The numbers were less impressive than Colgate had made them sound.

 

The ASA explained that “The claim would be understood by readers to mean that 80 per cent of dentists recommend Colgate over and above other brands, and the remaining 20 per cent would recommend different brands. […] Because we understood that another competitor’s brand was recommended almost as much as the Colgate brand by the dentists surveyed, we concluded that the claim misleadingly implied 80 per cent of dentists recommend Colgate toothpaste in preference to all other brands.”

 

This sort of fact-fudging is concerning because numbers permeate our lives. Sports fans pore over statistics of their favorite teams and players. Consumers are bombarded with product information on billboards, TV, and the internet. Pundits and politicians rattle off figures to tell voters how better or worse things have gotten. People tune into the weather channel to see the chance of rain. Some data are truly informative, some are twisted to support a point, and others are outright fabricated. And yet, every day, we are inundated with a deluge of numbers we must continually process.

 

So how can we make sense of it all?

 

According to Charles Wheelan, a senior lecturer and policy fellow at Dartmouth College and bestselling author of Naked Economics, one of the best tools that we have to separate the wheat from the chaff is statistics, a system used to gather, organize, and interpret data. In short, statistics helps us to conceptualize information by allowing individuals to understand how data is collected and how it can be interpreted and communicated. Wheelan states, “Statistics is one of those things that people need to understand in order to be an informed citizen, especially the use and abuse of data.”

 

Given its importance, descriptive statistics ought to ascend from its status as an elective to the pantheon of required high school mathematics, next to the trinity of algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Statistics is “also more intuitive and applied than other kinds of high school math courses (e.g. calculus or trig),” states Wheelan, “so it certainly strikes me as sensible to make basic statistics an integral part of any high school math curriculum.”

 

In doing so, students will be better prepared to make informed decisions as adults over a wide range of subjects. For instance, as consumers, students will learn to question and be skeptical of advertisement claims. As voters, they will be able to interpret basic socioeconomic data touted or slammed by candidates, understand how surveys and polls work, and be aware of how data can be skewed—intentionally or unintentionally—through bias.

 

By incorporating more knowledge of statistics into our everyday lives, we will be able to foster an educated citizenry, helping future generations to make sense of our increasingly data-deluged world.

 

What Every Science Student Should Know (University of Chicago Press)

 

Check out my new guide aimed at helping college students excel in science, What Every Science Student Should Know (University of Chicago Press)

Book Review: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

Commander Chris Hadfield captured the world’s imagination last year, when, from 13 March to 13 May 2013, he was the first Canadian Commander of the International Space Station. While aboard the ISS, Commander Hadfield did a series of “experiments,” both for scientists, but, perhaps most importantly, for youth. This included genuinely interesting questions like “How do you cry in space? (video above)” and “How do you cut your nails?” and the always important “How do you go to the bathroom?” His amicable nature and genuinely infectious enthusiasm brought science to the masses, and helped inspire thousands of youth.

Recently, Chris Hadfield released his book – “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.” My sister waited in line for 3 hours at our local Costco to get me a signed copy for my birthday, and I finally got around to reading it for this review. The book follows the life of Chris Hadfield as he becomes the commander of Expedition 35, detailing his attitude and the path he took to become the first Canadian Commander of the ISS. The book is split into three broad sections leading up to Expedition 35 titled “Pre-Launch,” “Liftoff” and “Coming Down to Earth,” with several chapters within each section.

The book was fascinating to me – Hadfield is a hybrid pilot-engineer-scientist-lab rat. His expertise is in engineering and as a test pilot, but throughout the book he references how his work is interdisciplinary, and he has to have a broad understanding of several domains in order to be effective. In addition to his role as an astronaut and Commander, he is also a fully fledged lab rat, and people on the ground will ask him questions about how he’s feeling, take samples while he’s in space and after he returns, as well as measure how quickly he recovers to life back on Earth in order to further our understanding about how life in space impacts the human body. Since, at some point, we hope to explore the stars, any data we can get on how astronauts respond to life in space is valuable.

One of my favourite parts of the book was how it didn’t just focus on the mundane, it relished them. He spends pages describing the drills he went through, and how important have a strong grasp of the fundamentals was for his success. I found this refreshing – too often in science we glorify the achievements but ignore all the hard work that got them there. A breakthrough in the lab might take months or even years of work before things go right, and having some acknowledge that, not only do things not work (often), them not working is not the end of the world. This was a refreshing take on the scientific method, and really highlighted the value in “the grind” of slowly perfecting your skills.

Click the book cover for purchasing options!
Click the book cover for purchasing options!

He also has a certain brand of “folksy wisdom” that is inspiring in it’s own way. It’s not inspirational in the nauseating sense that these things are often written in, but more practical. He states the importance of reading the team dynamic before getting involved for example, or how important it is to really understand the nuts and bolts of what you’re doing, but at no point does that feel patronizing or “hey, look at me, I’m an astronaut!” For many budding scientists, the idea of trudging through another page of equations, or washing beakers, or just doing the mundane, less exciting parts of science makes you apathetic and bored. Hadfield takes this moments and stresses just how important it is to learn from them, as well as ensure that you know exactly why they are important. I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in STEM careers, and especially those early in their careers.

To purchase, check out Chris Hadfield’s official website.


Featured image: Commander Hadfield performed at the 2013 Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa, ON | Picture courtesy David Johnson, click for more info