Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Why nature of science?

Nature of Science

If you're a supporter of NCSE, I already know that you care about science. You probably believe that everything from our personal life choices to our national policy should be informed by carefully considered scientific evidence. Indeed, you probably believe that choosing to ignore science, or to be guided by anecdotes instead of data, is a recipe for a bad outcome. And so I’m going to go ahead and assume that in the last year you have repeatedly slapped your forehead and thought “How can anyone believe that?!”

The term “anti-science” gets thrown around a lot in attempts to explain neglect and denial of evidence. But I prefer to diagnose the problem as due to an inadequate ability to think critically about scientific claims. And what’s great about that diagnosis is that a lack of ability, no matter how widespread, is something that we know how to fix. Indeed, at NCSE, we know that science teachers can be a huge part of the solution. After all, we already know how important science teachers are in helping students overcome misconceptions about evolution and climate change.

The coronavirus pandemic has put science on the front pages and in our news feeds day after day for months. On the one hand, this has been great for science: nothing drives curiosity more than urgent, personal relevance, so people are hungry for science news. And the scientific community has come through with amazing results, beginning with publishing the sequence of the new virus within weeks of its emergence and following through by developing vaccines in record time. On the other hand, the glut of science news has resulted in an uneven news landscape, with solid reporting mixed in with hype, premature conclusions, and outright misinformation.

Here at NCSE, we wanted to help. What could we do to support the tens of thousands of science teachers — most of them suddenly teaching from home — as they became, for their students, perhaps the one person in their lives trusted to help decipher the often-conflicting news about the science underlying the pandemic?

What could we do to support the tens of thousands of science teachers — most of them suddenly teaching from home — as they became, for their students, perhaps the one person in their lives trusted to help decipher the often-conflicting news about the science underlying the pandemic?

Lin Andrews, NCSE’s Director of Teacher Support, had a great idea, which we got rolling even before most schools closed. We began sending out a weekly article to help teachers answer questions we thought students would be asking. The first of these “Teachable Moment” articles was published on March 10, 2020, tackling the question: “How Deadly Is COVID-19?" If you can cast your mind back that far, there was considerable uncertainty about that question at the time. Preliminary evidence from China indicated a mortality rate of 1–3%, but some commentators were arguing that the mortality rate was drastically lower because so many cases were not even being diagnosed. Which estimate was correct?

That first Teachable Moment set the pattern for those to come. Our goal was not just to give students the answers; we wanted them to learn how to think about these science stories for themselves. What evidence were these two different opinions based on? Did either group have more expertise? Was the disagreement based on data or speculation? Did anyone have mixed motives underpinning their conclusion? We tried to model how scientists evaluate evidence and reach conclusions. We included an easy activity or exercise that teachers could have their students do, even at home.

These Teachable Moments proved quite popular, and not just among teachers. It turns out that lots and lots of people have been feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of scientific information and were grateful for some guidance on how to winnow it down to something they could act on.

As we wrote the articles, we quickly realized that the universal theme was helping people understand how science works. For example, those early mortality estimates of 1–3% turned out to be pretty accurate. But if they hadn’t, that would have provided a teachable moment about how scientific conclusions can change over time, but only if there is credible new evidence. Scientists don’t change their minds because they’re fickle, or watching the poll numbers; they change their minds when evidence conflicts with their previous conclusions.

Taking a deep dive into pandemic news each week made us realize that misconceptions about how science works were pervasive. Over and over again we saw headlines that exaggerated scientific findings, news stories that quoted conspiracy theorists alongside legitimate scientific experts, and opinion pieces that cherry-picked evidence, cited fake experts, or rejected public health guidelines because science could not provide absolute certainty. Some of these stories were actively misleading, but many of them simply represented standard practices of journalism (highlight the most newsworthy finding; represent all sides of an issue) that conflict with standard practices of science (don’t speculate beyond the evidence; give greater weight to conclusions backed by multiple lines of credible evidence).

The problem was much bigger than casual neglect or outright rejection of scientific evidence (although those were definitely problems). Even journalists and commentators who just wanted to understand what was going on with the pandemic and to convey that to their audiences often harbored fundamental misconceptions about how science works. And thus was born our second big reaction to the pandemic — the development of a set of lessons designed to help students understand how science works, all using themes in epidemiology as “anchoring phenomena” (as they say in the science education world), and centered on the most common misconceptions about the nature of science.

What are some of these common misconceptions? Perhaps the one that has been most obvious during the pandemic is the idea that science uncovers The Truth and that scientific findings are therefore either Right or Wrong. For example, early in the pandemic, most experts thought that coronavirus was likely to spread by large droplets (because that was how other coronaviruses were thought to spread), which would mean that surface contamination would be a big problem and frequent handwashing and sanitizing the best response. They didn’t think masks would be as important, and since masks were in short supply for health care workers, their use was de-emphasized. As evidence built up, the importance of respiratory transmission became clear, and public health experts began emphasizing the importance of masks.

The damage, however, was done. For those who wanted to politicize the pandemic, the faulty early advice on masks was a convenient pretext to reject all public health guidance. And even for those who just wanted to know how to protect themselves and their families, the change in message was confusing.

It’s easy (and probably fair) to criticize public health messaging, and equally easy (and even more fair) to blame those who misrepresented science in bad faith, but at NCSE we wonder whether much confusion could have been avoided if everyone had learned in science class that science is not a box full of facts, representing immutable eternal truths, but an ongoing process that reconsiders its conclusions based on new evidence.

“In science, ‘fact’ can only mean ‘confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.’ I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms."

Astute observers of people or groups that reject the science of evolution and climate change (or tobacco safety, or vaccine safety, or any other well-supported scientific conclusion that some people hope to discredit) will notice that this important aspect of the nature of science — that it is always open to considering new evidence — is often cynically exploited to claim that any old line of argument might be true because, after all, science is provisional, they laughed at Galileo, etc., etc. Yes, science is provisional — but some scientific claims have been supported by such a vast amount of evidence, often from numerous lines of inquiry, that it no longer makes sense to consider them open to debate in any meaningful way.

As expressed by the incomparable Stephen Jay Gould: “In science, ‘fact’ can only mean ‘confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.’ I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.” (from “Evolution as Fact and Theory” in Discover 1981, reprinted in Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes.)

Helping students understand the nature of science is the goal of NCSE’s new set of lessons, each giving students lots of practice at recognizing particular misconceptions about the nature of science and all organized around public health, epidemiology, and the coronavirus pandemic. We hope these topics will soon no longer be quite so timely, but the same misconceptions can be illustrated by just about any area of science that teachers want to emphasize.

By the summer of 2021, we will have recruited a group of teachers to field-test these lessons in the fall so that we can measure whether they are successful at reducing students’ misconceptions about science. Like any good scientist, we’ll use the results of that experiment to improve the lessons. Ultimately, our goal is to have our teacher ambassadors train their peers in the use of these lessons, in addition to our evolution and climate change lessons, which are also designed to help students recognize and correct their misconceptions.

The pandemic has had a terrible cost — in lost lives and lost livelihoods, in exhausted health care providers, teachers, and parents, in loneliness, frustration, and missed milestones. I would never say that it had an upside. But in NCSE’s case, it did highlight a need that we hope to meet — the need for educators to develop their students’ understanding of the nature of science as an essential skill for the next generation.

This article has been modified slightly from its original print format.

NCSE Executive Director Ann Reid
Short Bio

Ann Reid is a former Executive Director of NCSE.