Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Helping people overcome their aversion to science

Resistance to science has important social implications, because a scientifically ignorant public is unprepared to evaluate polices about global warming, genetically modified organisms, stem cell research, and cloning.
An excerpt from
Childhood origins of adult resistance to science in Science Magazine 18 May 2007 issue.

Many Americans are resistant to learn about new technologies, evolution and natural selection, or complicated health care issues. Why? Because people have a hard-time accepting information that conflicts with their personal construct and understanding of the world.

Resistance to science, technology, and math (STM) education begins early and stays throughout life for most people. Usually because of a dissatisfying experience with STM during the formative years – middle and high school grades, many people shy away or outright reject information about our advancing knowledge in these areas.

Students and citizens are not empty vessels. No, they have a pretty broad idea of how the world works. These ideas may not be accurate but these ideas are ‘true enough’. And for many people they learn about new things from their personal expert -- someone in their social circle, someone they trust to be right or believe to be most knowledgeable.

Now, consider this: If a person is resistant to science since childhood, he/she doesn’t know any scientists, and she/her has no real idea of how science works, then how should they react to all of this new information? Why should they believe want the scientific community says about a matter? Why should they chuck out what they believe and know to be true?

One of my science education professors warns that we should not “expect students to replace one fairy-tale for another”. The students’ ideas and comprehension of the world are established, even if it is inaccurate. Just because you tell them what is correct and they provide the correct answers on the tests, doesn’t mean they will accept it as true. Especially for controversial lessons about evolution, students will take the test and then declare they believe none of the information provided by the instructor. Why? They failed to update their world-view.

So, how do we teach people about the world so that they can update their brain computers? We let them discover the phenomenon. Active learning through manipulation and experimentation is essential if people are to REALLY learn more about the world and about science. Teaching science as a laundry list of facts doesn’t help people become more scientifically literate or able to evaluate policies. However, meaningful learning experiences do give students and citizens the opportunities to figure things out for themselves.

Unlike the personal expert who can be vouched for, the scientific community has no such social capital with the general public. That’s not how science works – usually. The results speak for themselves; the proof is in the pudding. Our voucher system is the experiment or rather the experience. Science is best learned by doing it. Let people try things out, test assumptions, research perceptions. When people can figure things out for themselves that’s when people will resist science less.


Bob Calder said...

I don't know what your professor meant by swapping one fairy-tale for another in context but to me that's what it often seems to come down to. Largely because there are many things that take a great deal of study to understand thoroughly. In the meantime, the student has to have a place for their "authority compass" to point. How many people are qualified to refute the recent assertion that Michael J. Behe's _The Edge of Evolution_ makes that functional changes in proteins often involve two or more sites and that such multiple-amino acid replacements aren't likely to have happened? (Science 8 June 2007: Vol. 316. no. 5830, pp. 1427 DOI: 10.1126/science.1145104)

The preacher has Behe's books on the shelf behind his desk next to his Greek and Latin commentaries.

Because reliance on authority has an emotional component, adhering to an authority in a different field is easy when you already depend on him or her for support, so switching is difficult.

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