The United States is having some trust issues with science.
Two recent books, An Instinct for Truth by Robert Pennock and Why Trust Science? by Naomi Oreskes, make the case for greater public recognition of the legitimacy of scientific knowledge. The fact that such books would even need to be written would have been inconceivable a generation ago.
After years of attacks on science from the left (during the so-called science wars of the 1990s) and more recently from the right (by the anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers), it’s not surprising that some doubt about science has crept into the public consciousness.
While a recent survey from the Pew Research Center shows a small upswing in public confidence in scientists generally, those numbers are considerably lower when it comes to “research” scientists (as opposed to practitioners—doctors, dietitians, etc.). And only about a third of Americans say that environmental scientists can be relied on to provide fair and accurate information about their work, which is particularly troubling given the impending climate crisis.
Much of this skepticism stems from a misunderstanding of how science works to produce reliable knowledge. Can you "prove" that vaccines don’t cause autism? How can scientists be so sure that humans are responsible for climate change? many ask.
As I describe in my new book, How We Teach Science: What's Changed and Why It Matters, there was a time in the first half of the twentieth century when science was held in high esteem and teaching students about its process—the scientific method—was viewed as one of the primary goals of science education.
The five steps of that method were held up as the surest path to getting to the truth. The steps were straightforward enough: Identify a problem, form a hypothesis, gather evidence, analyze the data, and reach a conclusion. And they were easy to teach. Students had only to memorize and apply them sequentially.
Things changed following World War II. The massive influx of federal research funding brought worries over external control of scientific research, which led scientists in the 1950s to push back against “the scientific method.” It was all too simple. They objected to the idea of science as “a sort of intellectual machine, which, when one turns a crank called ‘the scientific method,’ inevitably grinds out ultimate truth,” as one scientist described it in 1958. This school view of method seemed to take the scientists out of the picture entirely. Anyone could arrive at the truth if they just followed the steps.
They offered in its place a new vision of how science worked—science as a process of “inquiry,” which appeared in curricular materials developed during the 1960s following the shock of Sputnik in 1957. The inquiry approach presented science as a nuanced endeavor that depended on the disciplinary knowledge and tacit expertise of scientific researchers. Science was, in other words, a complicated matter that wasn’t as easy as had previously been taught.
After science fell from public favor during the tumultuous years of the late 1960s and 70s, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and later the National Research Council sought to bolster public perceptions of science as the era of science education standards was launched. The inquiry approach was revived with added emphasis on teaching about the larger scientific enterprise. Answers to questions of “what sort of institutions did scientific research, who decides on funding priorities, and what exactly is peer review?” were put forward as important topics to cover in American classrooms. The goal was to help the public understand how the operations of science worked, that it emerged from a process of consensus formation and was subject to numerous checks and balances to ensure that the final product had integrity—that its claims, in other words, could be trusted.
Not surprisingly, American classrooms fell short of these goals. Teaching science as inquiry was difficult to get right, especially for teachers who had never engaged in that process themselves. And the new emphasis on the scientific enterprise was all too easily swept away by an increased focus on facts, concepts, and calculations as the country moved sharply toward testing and measuring student achievement. Who cares about process and the social context of research as long as students get the correct answer on the test?
The most recent prescription for what we should be doing in science classrooms comes from the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) with its focus on the “practices of science.” Rather than try to teach the difficult process of science as inquiry, they divided scientific work into eight practices: Asking questions; developing and using models; planning a carrying out investigations; analyzing and interpreting data; using mathematics and computational thinking; constructing explanations; engaging in argument from evidence; and obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information.
This new approach to learning about science seems to make sense, and many of the goals are laudable. The authors of this version of scientific process insist even that they’ve learned from the mistakes of the past. But have they really? History offers some hard lessons here. Detailing how science works in this manner will no doubt make it easier for teachers. The eight practices, though, will likely be covered much the same way that the five steps of the scientific method were taught in the first half of the twentieth century, sequentially and in isolation from the messiness of authentic research. This might even increase the number of students joining their more science-minded peers in the STEM career pipeline (which seems to be the goal of NGSS if the statements on its website are to be believed).
What NGSS has left out, though, is any discussion of those larger questions about how science works: How are research funding priorities determined? What about peer review? What does it mean to say that the scientific research community has reached a consensus on an issue? These are the questions that the majority of citizens need to understand if we are to have any hope of making intelligent choices in the difficult years that lay ahead.
Having a few more scientists and engineers among us isn’t likely to matter all that much if the rest of us are unwilling to trust what they have to say.
John Rudolph is Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He writes about the history of science education and current science education policy in the United States.