one reason many don’t ‘get’ science

By Alison Campbell 09/01/2012

Over at this post by Seth Mnookin** in the new HuffPo science section (like Orac I will be rather interested to see how this section pans out), a commenter with the ‘nym Seeking Clarity remarked:

What our mainstream science education curricula apparently fails to adequately teach is why the process of science tends to produce information of relatively high reliability and why this process is such useful compensation for human limitations.

We are instead taught to recite the requisite repertoire of science fact and vocabulary that may be useful to science majors but which (divorced from its epistemological context) is experienced by average students as irrelevant to their own lives.

As a result, the findings of science are seen as one of any number of engines of opinion. The public often misses the role of carefully and collaboratively vetted empirical corroboration as a basis of confidence.

Therefore the relative tentativeness, incompleteness, and internal controversies that characterise the products and the community of science can be mistaken for weakness in contrast to those persons who unhesitatingly and appealingly claim to have access to conclusive truths.

I’ve reproduced the comment here as it’s very relevant to discussions I’ve had with colleagues & fellow science bloggers about the voluminous quantities of pseudoscience circulating on the internet & also available through the media (some of the latter masquerades as ‘entertainment’ but some – Ancient Aliens for example – is presented with a seemingly straight face). There seems to be a huge demand for this sort of stuff, as witnessed by the number of websites offering up kitty-litter as a cure-all (not that they come out & call zeolite ‘kitty-litter’), or the ‘miracle mineral supplement’ (knock back bleach & it will cure your ills), or detox foot-pads, or… the supply seems endless, & that’s not even counting the more ‘mainstream’ things like homeopathy.

People do tend to seek certainty in their lives, & as the comment above notes, scientists simply can’t give absolute certainty. But that’s often not understood, & it may well make the ‘alternatives’ seem that much more attractive. Hopefully the implementation of the 2007 science curriculum will help to redress that, at least with current & future students. But at the same time we do need to address the sheer volume of information (aka facts) that students must learn; in my opinion that discussion is long overdue!

** which is an excellent commentary  on the importance of & need for vaccination – & for responsible science journalism.

0 Responses to “one reason many don’t ‘get’ science”

  • To be honest, Alison, I can see positives out of this more as a foil to the advance of the American Moral Majority’s “version” of science (i.e Creative Design).

    The ability to trust in ourselves, to trust empiricism is key to backing ourselves to create great outcomes for humanity using science. Both fundamental and physical sciences would benefit in new and more minds that are focused on the outcomes that we believe we, as a species, can make.

    In some ways, after the heady days of the ’60’s when everyone wanted to be a rocket scientist, science seemed to slip away as a well regarded field and was replaced by money making as the admired profession. A renewed belief in science, from both a practising aspect and a funding aspect is crucial if we are to survive and prosper.