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MSPnet Blog: “The manufacture of disbelief and the challenge of science education”

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posted November 27, 2017 – by Brian Drayton

STEM teachers out there are probably very well aware of the current sustained attempts across the country to undermine the credibility of science. The “wedge issues” tend to be those that relate to issues of identity and cultural complacency — evolution, climate change, biomedical advances, and so on — the list is familiar enough.  There are other things at issue, such as air and water quality regulations, occupational safety, and so on.

Now, one of the things that’s going on is a debate, sometimes explicit, and sometimes not, about what counts as knowledge.  I am not a philosopher, but I think I understand that most kinds of knowledge about the world require us to make inferences from evidence.  In doing so, we have to have some confidence in our inferences, and some way of knowing that we have come to a satisfactory conclusion (at least provisionally) that accounts for (most of, a lot of) the data.  But what counts as “satisfactory”?

William James, in A pluralistic universe, urged us to accept that philosophizing and other kinds of knowing are conducted by people (surprise!), who have temperaments, limitations,  and particular interests or concerns.   One’s “philosophical style” will to some degree (often a large one) have a bearing on what counts as a satisfying solution to  a problem of knowledge.  So it is no surprise that if a person has a lens that is deeply affected by such personal interests as political or economic advantage that they will prefer not to yield to external standards that conflict with their constructed reality.  Upton Sinclair famously wrote “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

The practices of science (and related fields), rooted as they are in social exchange, are some corrective to the tendency to view the world completely on one’s own terms.  Isaac Asimov’s famous short essay, “The relativity of wrong,” demolishes the fallacy that “everything that isn’t perfectly and completely right is totally and equally wrong.”   As he says,

when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.

He goes on to trace in his limpid style a couple of examples that illustrate how the give and take of scientists — with each other and with Nature — move towards “more true.”

Such reflections as these seem particularly important in considering the implications of current political and policy discussions whose tendency is in effect to argue that every assertion is so colored by individual perspective that we cannot really tell what is likely to actually be the case. This then allows a remarkable license, by which “every one can do what seems right in their eyes,” with no external reference needed or desired.  One of the effects of this is to free those who are so inclined to refuse to consider the consequences of their actions, to “externalize” costs or likely futures, and thus pretend that they do not exist.

STEM teachers are in many ways the first bulwark against this particular guise of chaos — I could imagine many good teachers I have known making an argument much like Asimov’s, to help show how even if final truths are rarely to be found, still, there are truer and less true things to be known and built upon.

What set me to grinding this favorite axe of mine was a recent short documentary in the New York Times about the teaching or non-teaching of evolution in the schools.  As a follower of sites like the National Center for Science Education will be aware (see just the most recent story, “A new antiscience bill in Florida”), the effort continues to liberate students and other humans from the constraints of scholarship or the nature of things, and simulate “free inquiry” in the absence of knowledge or method.


NOTE:  The opinions expressed here are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.