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How to Increase Scientific Literacy | Inside Higher Ed

A recent correspondent shared a memorable quotation from the Nobel prizewinner Ernest Rutherford:  “That which is not Physics is stamp collecting.”  In other words, that which isn’t science is a trivial and inconsequential waste of time.

Bored out of his mind by box checking introductory courses in the humanities, my correspondent wrote: “To many STEM students the truly “Great Books” were written by Physicists and Mathematicians.”  He added:   “A deep study of literature will not get you through a decent course on Differential Equations. Facile speech doesn’t get you through Physical Electronics.”  Those words give vivid expression to a deep divide between those who value creative writing and the arts and those who attach the greatest importance to scientific inquiry,

I sense that my students tend to fall into one of two camps.  There are those, like my correspondent, who regard the humanities as lightweight, and consider STEM the only source of meaningful knowledge.  Then, alongside a small number of scientific skeptics, there are those who don’t consider themselves science people, and who feel utterly incapable of evaluating scientific claims.

I think it’s essential that we bridge that divide. 

Americans once revered science and scientists. That, I think it’s fair to say, is no longer the case.  Many do, but a substantial number don’t.  

It’s not just due to religious fundamentalists or the conspiracy minded. Retractions.  Claims of fudged data, conflicts of interest, results that can’t be replicated, shifting theories, and highly publicized disagreements, compounded by the pandemic – all have reinforced skepticism. So, too, is the all too common tendency to move beyond agreed upon facts in making policy recommendations.

For all too many Americans, scientific understanding is a matter of faith.  It doesn’t rest on genuine knowledge or understanding.  It involves a leap of faith.  It requires the public to defer to scientific authority, something that many Americans with an Emersonian faith in self-reliance, won’t do. 

That doesn’t, however, mean that faith in science is the same, say, as religious faith.  Science, as Paul Bloom, who has taught psychology at the University of Toronto and Yalehas noted, isn’t simply another way of knowing with equal epistemological status as religion.  Nor is science merely a body of knowledge.  It’s a methodology.

Scientific practice depends upon evidence, observation, experimentation, the development and testing of falsifiable hypotheses, and revision.  Its conclusions and insights are provisional, and are open to questioning, refutation, and modification.  The scientific community is collectively responsible for evaluating scientific conclusions.  Science, from this perspective, is self-correcting in a way that religion is not.

Still, as Professor Bloom also observes, science must not be fetishized.  As he adds:  “scientific practice is permeated by groupthink, bias, and financial, political, and personal motivations.”  After all, distrust in science has deep historical roots.  Scientific racism and Eugenics are just two of examples of how science has served as a tool for justifying and perpetuating social distinctions and discriminatory policies that rest on pseudoscientific understandings of race, ethnicity, gender, and class. There are similar examples from the history of scientific medicine, which includes wrenching examples of grotesque surgeries and disparate treatment of pain and illness rooted in ideas that were subsequently repudiated.  

It is a profound historical irony that even as scientists proposed various theories of racial difference, racial superiority, and racial inferiority, such as polygenesis, it was religion that sustained a faith that all human beings were created in the image of God.  We must resist the kind of simplification that underlay Andrew Dickson White’s highly influential 1896 volume, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, which posited an inevitable conflict between science and religion to the detriment of the latter.

Given that background, why should we trust science?  That’s the question that Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science and affiliated professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Harvard, asks in her 2021 book Why Trust Science?  Her answer, in a nutshell, is science’s social character.  Science is trustworthy because it depends on consensus, diversity, and methodological openness.

Buttressed with blurbs from Chemistry WorldNew Science, Science, and the Journal of Applied Crystallography, the Oreskes’ book argues that non-scientists can rely on scientific consensus – agreement among those who are well-qualified to study the relevant facts.  But, as we all know, an earlier consensus, for example, about phlogiston, or that the primary cause of ulcers was stress, turned out to be wrong.  As one commentator on the book put it: “Because scientific truth, unlike religious truth, is always provisional; as Thomas Henry Huxley said, one of the tragedies of science is the undoing of beautiful theories by ugly facts.”

As another reviewer writes: “Consensus has no place in science. If 100% of scientists agree with an incorrect hypothesis, it is still incorrect. Newton’s theory of gravity was wrong. Einstein’s theories don’t work in black holes or at quantum scales.”

As still other writers argue, the scientific method, with its emphasis on deduction or induction, doesn’t fully describe what scientists actually do, as some of the most important breakthroughs are conceptual and theoretical and require decades of experimentation before they are shown to be correct, incorrect, or partially correct.  These writers agree with Karl Popper and argue that science’s distinctive feature is skepticism: the willingness to question and test all scientific claims.  As yet another commentator contends; “what distinguishes a scientific claim from a non-scientific one is not that there is some observation by which it can be verified, but that there is some observation by which it can be refuted… the key activity of science is not the gathering of observations, but the formulation of conjectures and the pursuit of specific observations that may refute them.”

James C. Zimring’s 2019 volume, What Science Is and How It Really Works, offers a somewhat different defense of science.  It argues, as one of the book’s reviewers puts it, that science differs from other belief systems because it “is based on calculating what is the most probable explanation for what we observe in our world with consideration to cognitive biases, heuristics, fallacies, and many other issues that we all face as humans in a human society.”

The Oreskes and Zimring books suggest that if we really want undergraduates to understand the level of confidence that they should place in particular scientific knowledge claims and be able to distinguish valid claims from flim-flam, we need to do two things.  First of all, we need to introduce them to scientific reasoning and the scientific method and the difference between scientific and non-scientific thinking and “how science mitigates the tendency of normal human thinking to ‘get the world wrong’ in particular situations.”  The second is to engage students in scientific research so that they can begin to see for themselves the nature of scientific investigation and reasoning.    

I think it’s fair to say that much of the general public feels unequipped to assess the reliability or significance of scientific findings or how these fit into a larger portrait of nature’s evolution and workings.  Vaccine hesitancy, climate change denial, and a belief in the efficacy of unsupported alternative medical treatments are just a few of the byproducts not only out of American culture’s profound distrust of expertise, but of the perception among some that bias, political and otherwise, has infected and tarnished science and medicine.  

I, for one, am increasingly convinced that one or two introductory courses in biology or geology is not the best way to instill scientific literacy.  We need a different approach – one that combines an understanding of the scientific method and the nature and limits of scientific claims and hands-on experience in scientific inquiry.

In 1959, the British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow published a hugely influential book entitled The Two Cultures.  In that book, he argued that intellectual life in the West was divided into two mutually antagonistic subcultures, one rooted in the arts and humanities, the other in science and engineering. Snow expressed a deep concern about what he saw as a widening gulf of misunderstanding and mistrust, of suspicion and distrust, between scientists and non-scientists. In Snow’s view, humanists and scientists existed in separate cultures that have “almost ceased to communicate at all.” Science conceived of itself as dispassionately objective, while the humanities and arts emphasized sensibility, values, and the influence of culture. 

Much handwringing has been expended over this cultural divide–which is, of course, part of larger fragmentation and specialization of human understanding. Yet despite widespread concern about the chasm separating the sciences and the humanities, a profound gap continues to separate the two cultures. The breakdown in communication between the sciences and the humanities was vividly illustrated by a controversy that erupted after the mathematical physicist Alan Sokal revealed that an article he had published in the humanities journal Social Text in 1996 was a hoax. To Sokal, this incident revealed the lack of “standards of intellectual rigor in certain precincts of the American academic humanities.” This charge provoked an outcry from many humanists.

The gap between the sciences and the humanities carries profound social and intellectual consequences. On the one hand, science and technology without a humanistic understanding of aesthetics and ethical values risks becoming mere scientism: soulless, antisocial, and lacking an awareness of human values. Likewise, the humanities without an understanding of contemporary science is impoverished indeed; it is necessarily ignorant of the most recent conceptions of causality, interactivity, and representation.

A humanistic understanding of human life cannot leave science aside.   After all, science is central to cultural self-understanding. Students in the art and humanities benefit enormously from learning the language, methods, and concepts of science.  But STEM students too would benefit from a better understanding of the ethical and epistemological issues science raises.  One of the academy’s aims must be to encourage science students to contemplate the legal, ethical, social, and philosophical implications of cutting-edge scientific research into such fields as genetic engineering, new reproductive technologies, and animal and human experimentation.  All students, in turn, need to understand that scientists and humanists wrestle with many of the same fundamental questions, even as they rely upon distinctive methodologies, languages, and traditions. 

We must, in short, bridge the divide that separates the humanities and STEM majors, and ensure that both groups understand the scientific method, the nature and limits of scientific knowledge claims, and scientific ethics.  One perspective is incomplete without the other. 

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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