As thousands take to the streets as part of a global 'March for Science’ it is worth considering the significant role that education has to play. What are the messages we need to send our students about science and what role have schools played in creating the current climate? Now seems like the time to pause and reflect on the place of science in our community and our schools.
In seeking to understand the need for a ‘March for Science’ you must look at the political debates which have occurred around recent global challenges. Debate is undeniably a healthy aspect of our quest to make meaning from our observations of the world. It is core to our desire to understand and can be seen in the building blocks of science itself. However, what we have seen recently in political debates is a deliberate and consistent debasing of the science behind the issues which are being debated. The inconvenience of the science, that it contradicts the political desires of some segments of the community, that it casts into doubt the long-term feasibility of structures and assets which have brought power to some has led to claims that science can be equated with opinion or belief. It has become OK to state with no recourse to evidence or research that ‘I do not believe the evidence of science’.
To understand why such claims are deeply erroneous one must look at why science does not sit at the table with belief or opinion as equals in a hierarchy of knowledge. Science is fundamentally a process for testing the validity of claims made as a consequence of observations. The work of science is to make sense of the world in which we live through a rigorous process that by its very nature is designed to overcome errors, bias, misunderstandings and in doing so to construct reliable knowledge. Science is much more than the pool of knowledge that it has created, it is the epistemological approach to knowledge with experimentation, data analysis and testing and retesting at its heart. This short video by Astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson powerfully explains that the work of science 'is an entire exercise in finding what is true’.
“Science provides an empirical way of answering interesting and important questions about the biological, physical and technological world. The knowledge it produces has proved to be a reliable basis for action in our personal, social and economic lives. Science is a dynamic, collaborative and creative human endeavour arising from our desire to make sense of our world through exploring the unknown, investigating universal mysteries, making predictions and solving problems.” (Australian Curriculum - Rationale for Science)
Science is not a matter of opinion. It does not rely upon belief. It is an approach to explaining what is there and for testing predictions of what might be yet unknown. It is a process that has allowed us to build the modern world in which we live. A process that freed us from beliefs of the causes of disease; from a false belief that it was caused by ‘bad air’ (miasma) to an understanding of the part played by micro-organisms. In this case as in so many others, science has provided us with new understandings that have allowed us to advance as a society and find better solutions. It is this process of unlocking new knowledge and utilising our fullest understanding of the facts which is today under threat. We are facing challenges on the scale of global warming, pollution of our oceans, species loss, communicable disease and pandemics at a time when we have politicians and media giants who play games with the truth and question without due evidence or process the science which we need to understand the nature of these threats.
In this, schools have a part to play. We need to teach our students what science is. We need to help them to understand that science is more than information of a certain styling. To show them that the methodology of science provides the measures of reliability and of fair testing that even the most sceptical could wish for. We need to remove ourselves from the political debate and put before our students the scientific knowledge upon which decisions should be made. Sadly, in the name of equity we have fallen into the trap of giving equal time to both sides of debates even where the evidence is clearly stacked one way. We have sought to not offend those who wish to argue against the weight of scientific evidence without recourse to research or reliable knowledge. We have sat by while we watch our ice caps melt and our reefs pale from bleaching and felt contented that our curriculum is unbiased.
When we move beyond teaching students selected pearls of scientific knowledge and allow them to participate fully in the processes of science they will see that its methodologies are trust-worthy. Our students need to make claims, to test them and share them with a community of scientists who will debate and challenge their findings. They need to experience the joy that comes from discovery and the understanding that even a disproven hypothesis advances our understanding. We need to bring scientists into our schools who will share stories of their work and their learning with our students. Scientists who are dedicated to finding truth and expanding our understanding. We need to demystify science and show that the knowledge it creates and advances is in no way equitable with opinion. By doing so we may strengthen our future citizens against the biased and false claims of politicians unwilling to confront the inconvenient truths which science brings into the light.
By Nigel Coutts