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Friday, January 30, 2015

American scientists think science education is a problem

The results of the latest PEW/AAAS survey are getting a lot of attention [Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society]. Most people focus on the fact that the American public doesn't accept evolution and anthropogenic climate change. That's not news.

The real issue is what can we1 do about it. Alan Leshner, Chief Executive Officer of AAAS and Executive Publisher of Science, thinks he has the answer. Here's what he writes in an editorial "Bridging the opinion gap" ...
Speaking up for the importance of science to society is our only hope [my emphasis, LAM], and scientists must not shy away from engaging with the public, even on the most polarizing science-based topics. Scientists need to speak clearly with journalists, who provide a great vehicle for translating the nature and implications of their work. Scientists should also meet with members of the public and discuss what makes each side uncomfortable. In these situations, scientists must respond forthrightly to public concerns. In other words, there needs to be a conversation, not a lecture.
Isn't that insightful? Here we are in 2015 and nobody ever thought of that before now! Can you imagine how much better off we'd be if scientists have only started speaking up 40 years ago, or even 10 years ago?

Scientists have been engaging with the American public about evolution for half a century and it has not worked. They've also been speaking to journalists.2

Fortunately, there are some people who have gone way past these naive views and actually thought seriously about the problem. Here's are the results of two questions from the survey.
  • Only 16% of AAAS scientists and 29% of the general public rank U.S. STEM education for grades K-12 as above average or the best in the world. Fully 46% of AAAS scientists and 29% of the public rank K-12 STEM as “below average.”
  • 75% of AAAS scientists say too little STEM education for grades K-12 is a major factor in the public’s limited knowledge about science. An overwhelming majority of scientists see the public’s limited scientific knowledge as a problem for science.
I agree with those scientists. We are part of the problem because we are not doing a very good job of educating students in the ways of science. The long term solution is to do a far better job of teaching about science. We should not be graduating students from university who reject evolution and climate change. We should not be giving out degrees to students who fall for pseudoscience gobbledegook like homeopathy and astrology. If we do that then we are not doing our job as educators and survey results like these are not going to change in the forseeable future.

Now, to be fair, Alan Leshner recognizes the problem even if he's wrong about the solution.
The public's perceptions of scientists' expertise and trustworthiness are very important, but they are not enough. Acceptance of scientific facts is not based solely on comprehension levels. It can be compromised whenever information confronts people's personal, religious, or political views, and whenever scientific facts provoke fear or make people feel that they have no control over a situation. The only recourse is to have genuine, respectful dialogues with people. Good venues are community clubs, science museums, science fairs, and religious institutions. Working with small groups is more effective than working with large groups.
Perhaps he and some other scientists can sit down in small groups with Republican members of Congress and change their minds. Maybe you could do it in their churches. (Remember to be respectful when dialoguing with John Boehner.) Meanwhile, I believe that's not the "only hope." I think educating our young people is a better investment in time and effort even though it won't pay off for a generation.

1. I say "we" because the same problems exist in Canada.

2. Maybe Alan Leshner should have a little chat with Elizabeth Pennisi.


  1. It begins much, much earlier than college. We need middle and high school science teachers who have actually taken science courses and done real science... not the canned experiments in all introductory classes.

    We really need to start in elementary school with much strong math and science, but those teachers rarely have any specialized training in math or science. For example, the total amount of math and science hours for K-6 generalist teachers is 13 hours. That's 3-4 classes for both math AND science (combined, not each).

    We shouldn't allow any teacher to teach who does not accept evolution, climate change, and vaccines.

    It's a systemic problem. People with poor knowledge of math and science tend to have children who end up with poor knowledge of math and science. I actually had a junior in a chemistry class once ask me "When I'm dividing, do I put the big number in the calculator first or the little number?" This is someone who is supposed to have passed Algebra 1 and Geometry.

    Anyway, another problem is that of pay. When I moved from the classroom to corporate, I doubled my salary and I've gotten two promotion and 5 raises (small, but raises) in 6 years. As a teacher, I never got a promotion or a raise other than the minuscule step-raise for years-in-service.

    Scientists may have crummy pay too, but at least they like their work and don't have to deal with parents, evolution denying principals, losing teaching days to football and other sports, crossing guard duty, etc, etc, etc.

    Sorry for the rant.

    1. One of the things that used to attract people to teaching was the promise of tenure and a pension. That applies to elementary and high school as well as to college teaching. My mother and my sister both retired on nice pensions, complete with lifetime health insurance.

      I worked for a series of companies that folded, sold, merged or whatever. None of them offered retirement benefits other than savings. At least that is portable. But for the remaining companies (and sometimes governments) that offer pensions, it is not unheard of for people to be laid off just before their pension is vested.

      I don't think pensions are counted as wealth when folks are discussing the wealthiest one percent, but they are wealth. In some ways they are the best kind of wealth.

    2. Sorry to be a nitpicker, but in the opening paragraph global warming should be anthropogenic, not anthropomorphic.

    3. Petrushka,

      I'll not disagree entirely. My current employer does not offer lifetime medical upon retirement. But with the ACA and the fact that in five years of my corporate job I have more than double what I had in nearly 13 years as a state employee... I'm not going to worry about it that much.

    4. OgreMkV says,

      It begins much, much earlier than college.

      Yes it does, but since I'm mostly addressing scientists, I don't want them to think they can pawn off responsibility to high school teachers. Even if high school and primary grade teachers do a bad job, we can still make lots of corrections in college classes.

    5. Larry,

      You can make some changes in college and I've heard some good reports from schools using alternative strategies (i.e. not a 45 minute lecture). But the majority of non-science/non-engineering degrees (journalism for example) still only have two science courses, both introductory courses. At least, that the case in the US.

      In my experience, most students take geology (as the easiest) or biology (second easiest). So, those are the two science groups to try to reach out to.

      The other group is philosophy teachers. At least in Texas, all degrees require a course in philosophy. Most kids take intro to Philosophy (whatever that is), but ramping up the quality and curriculum in that course would help some too.

    6. But the majority of non-science/non-engineering degrees (journalism for example) still only have two science courses, both introductory courses.

      Teaching the value of science as a way of knowing and the importance of evidence and logic should be a fundamental part of all classes in every subject.

      If journalist students aren't getting it in their regular classes then they should be required to take more science and philosophy in order to get a degree.

    7. I agree in principle, but would professors in the humanities and other such subjects agree that that their students need less of their teaching and more science? If anything, talking to them one gets the feeling that they seem to think that the problem with the world is that the modern world favors science over their humanistic approaches.

    8. Sorry to be a nitpicker, but in the opening paragraph global warming should be anthropogenic, not anthropomorphic.

      If the latter, would the rain forests be the world's sweaty underarms?

  2. First its not scientists but just a few "scientists" in a few subjects is where the public disagrees.
    Its up to scientists to make their case and not just say submit to my conclusions based on my authority.
    Its just another lame nobody in charge of a "sciency" group telling the people their religion is false or the planet is heating to a boil or other dumb things.
    They have already failed. They are losing ground.
    In fact its because of a oppressive establishment that censors/controls criticisms that allows them to keep up these errors at all.
    If they can take on the critics then have intellectual showdowns with the critics.
    Not organized censorship or useless lecturing.
    The people are intelligent and can weigh the evidence. Thats why they are in juries.

  3. OT but is this the most shameless science press release ever?
    "Yes, we have invented a way to unboil a hen egg," said Gregory Weiss, UCI professor of chemistry and molecular biology & biochemistry."

    They refold lysozyme and don't even mention the word ovalbumin. Not to mention that the actual refolding method is absolute plain vanilla (quick dilution from 8M urea).

  4. I don't think "science education" is the solution. After finding out that someone close to me is a climate denier, I've been trying to understand that position. I found an answer in Ch. 5 of ET Jaynes's Probability Theory: The Logic of Science.

    Jaynes gave an example of a paper reporting that a Bayesian method of estimation that yielded an orders-of-magnitude improvement. It was ignored. He says (p. 125) "it was, in retrospect, foolish of us to mention this at the outset, for in the minds of others the prior probability that we were irresponsible charlatans was greater than the prior probability that a new method could possibly be that good."

    Jaynes explains why, for most educated people, there is seemingly no amount of apparent evidence that will convince them to accept ESP. The problem is that there are, in any possible case of real ESP, a large number of different hypotheses in the "deception" category, under which the likelihood of the data is as high as for the genuine ESP hypothesis. In fact, after hearing a positive report of ESP, we might counter-intuitively update our beliefs by increasing our belief in deception and decreasing our belief in ESP.

    This is exactly what happens with climate deniers. In the famous Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) incident, Richard Muller, a physicist skeptical of a surface warming trend, briefly became the darling of the deniers when he proposed to re-analyze all the surface data and take into account some things the deniers were complaining about (poorly sited stations, urban heat island, excessive data pruning). Anthony Watts (notable denier) endorsed him and said he would accept whatever BEST found.

    Well, Muller found a warming trend. But instead of taking this as positive evidence of global warming, the deniers just concluded that Muller was yet another corrupt academic in thrall to the Liberal Establishment.

    The problem is that these people live in a world where they are constantly surrounded by messages indicating that scientists are dishonest. In this environment, climate denial becomes a form of rational skepticism, like rejection of ESP.

    Where does all of this suspicion arise? We know the answer to that. The oil & gas industry has spent hundreds of millions of dollars specifically to cast doubt on climate science and to present global warming as a tenuous hypothesis (e.g., Greenpeace has a report on this).

    In short, this is all really, really simple. To discredit science, spend money to flood the internet and mass media with messages that promote suspicion of science and scientists. You'll get the intended result that the science will be undermined.

    I would like to believe that reason will triumph after all, but I fear that is not the case. I think it will take money.

    1. Saying reason will win is just saying your side is right and thats that.
      The oil industry spending billions to fool people is a silly myth.
      it climate warning was not true then they have the right to point it out. Globalwarmingolics do that more then any oil industry.
      I don't care much about the subject but the reason smart people say its bogus is because its so unlikely man can affect the globe with puffs of smoke.
      therefore one can see a liberal upper class establishment wanting to make a cleaner greener world and it makes sense to them man is damaging the weather. They are the same folks who say DON't vaccinate or eat meat and so on. some of them.
      global warming by man is a myth and amnd smarter folks, who pay attention, know it.
      Even if it was true people would not know it by the evidence but only by their acceptance of sciency authority behind it.
      very few investigate these things. Its really just faith.Right or wrong.
      You are not burning up and florida alligators are not migrating north and the seas are not drowning New york city. Right or wrong morally.

    2. I have degrees in physics and philosophy and now teach the latter in community college. I also decry the low level of scientific knowledge and reasoning I see in most students. I use global warming as a case study in critical thinking because it is so multidimensional. I just watched "Merchants of Doubt" and plan to use it in my Into. and Critical Thinking classes. I highly recommend the film to everyone. It's available now for streaming on Amazon and the DVD/Netflix versions will be available Oct. 22nd.