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Thursday, April 5, 2012

COMMENT: Science Education [Full link to blog for email clients.]

Two interesting articles from the Internet have crossed my desk today. These articles have caused me to consider the state of scientific education in our schools and universities. The first article is one that compares confidence or trust in science or scientific institutions with political affiliation.   William Briggs, a statistician looks at a recent article regarding public trust in various institutions including Science (  While Briggs's blog is specifically questioning the valid statistical basis behind the survey (a peer-reviewed article in American Sociological Review: “Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010.”) he raises a very interesting point regarding "science" versus "Scientism". In Briggs' analysis, he notes that the survey asked for correspondence confidence, or levels of trust, and scientific institutions, particularly the leadership of those institutions. The author of the cited peer-reviewed manuscript, however, interprets the respondents response to the survey as trust in science as a field, and not referring to trust in scientific movements, consensus, or popular conception. On the other hand, breaks per first two referred to scientific consensus, or popular conception, as "Scientism." Scientism is an attitude, a consensus or trend in the field of science, but not necessarily investigation or experimentation to discern scientific fact.

For example, when faced with two pieces of data that are contradictory, Science will test both items and reject the one that fails tests of repeatability, parsimony, and consistency. Scientism, rather, rejects the data that does not fit "accepted" doctrine or politically correct posturing. There are many examples of Scientism both from liberal and conservative viewpoints. To the liberal, "creationism" is Scientism; likewise to the religious conservative, evolution occupies much the same niche. Within the field of Science however, evolution consists of a set of consistent theories, that provide a workable foundation for laboratory and field studies. To the conservative, "climate change" is also Scientism, and any dispute or contradiction is quickly shot down because "it's for the children."  To be fair, I consider myself both a conservative politically and religiously, but I consider myself a Scientist with an empahsis on investigation and discovery.  Oh, and by the way, Scientism is not limited to environmental concerns: Any time the status quo is challenged and resisted in a scientific field on the basis of "accepted" knowledge, Scientism is the result.

Yet the purpose of science is not to perpetuate dogma, but to constantly question, investigate, and explore. The second article to catch my attention today regards polar bear populations in Canada. In the town of Nunavik, Ion the western shore of Hudson Bay, a recent census shows that polar bear populations are not declining as quickly as would be predicted Climate Change. In the article (, the locals in Nunavik express confidence that polar bear populations are not endangered, and are in fact thriving. In resonance with the previous discussion Scientism, other comments within the article dispute the polar bear census findings, simply because they do not fit the accepted theories of endangered polar bear populations. This is a clear example of Scientism versus science. Science would approach the discrepancy between theory and observation with the need for more observation and experimental data. Scientism on the other hand, rejects the observation simply because it does not fit the narrative.

These discussions raise the question of how effectively our society is providing scientific education. On the one hand, liberals are fond of pointing out that conservatives are endangering science education with adherence to religious doctrines such as creationism and intelligent design. On the other hand liberalism itself endangers science and other ways.  Dilution of education in science is the result of many factors, and not all of them can be pinned on “conservatives” or the religious right.
  • School budgets cut education resources, with the result that classes can no longer afford experimental sessions and field trips. There are elementary schools in the Los Angeles area whose only science teaching occurs when university volunteers step in to bring science to the classroom (due to NSF grant requirements) without those volunteers, there would be no science taught in those classes.
  • Political and societal pressures have eliminated dissections, frog labs, rat and mouse behavioral experiments. 
  • Fears of chemical exposure, accidents and even terrorism have restricted chemistry labs. 
  • Lack of equipment shuts down physics labs. 
  • Multiculturalism teaches that the scientific, technological Western civilization conveys no advantages over any other culture. 
  • No Child Left Behind and teaching to the EOG tests slows the progress of eduction to the least common denominator. 
  • Abandonment of didactic teaching methods and grading scales in favor of "projects" and building self-esteem neglects the very fundamentals of scientific knowledge.
In particular, Science education is suppressed in favor of Scientism when students are taught that “there is consensus! The science is settled!”

Science is about questioning assumptions and performing experiments to collect data. Stressing “sustainability” and “nonmaterialist science” to the exclusion of investigation and the scientific method takes precious class time away from physical constants, synthetic pathways and biological processes. 

While there is no doubt that the reactionary conservatism and creationism imperil trust in Science as an institution, it is the far broader threat of conservative and liberal interference and neglect, rather, that poses the greatest threat to education of Science in our nation’s schools.

1 comment:

  1. Bravo. Scientism is something that any scientist should be doing their best to distance themselves from.
    I would add - and I do understand the enormous difficulty of this, because of the interlocking nature of the scientific community that when there is a hint of misconduct (Phil Jones recommending Michael Mann destroy their e-mail correspondence springs to mind), Scientists should deal with it harshly, because the credibility of science is too valuable to protect the individual at the expense of Science. But I do appreciate just how hard this is in practice.


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