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In his commencement address at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) this past June, surgeon and best-selling author Atul Gawande informed the students that if the school had done its job, all 579 of them were now scientists. “Sorry, English and history graduates, even you are, too,” Gawande told them.
His point, he explained, was that science isn’t a set of facts or a career, rather a systematic way of thinking—a learned behavior grounded in curiosity, testing, and factual observation. “Even more than what you think, how you think matters,” he cautioned them.
But, does how you think color what you think about science?
A 2015 study by the Pew Research Center shows that in the United States, professional scientists and the public agree on little when it comes to a whole host of science-related issues, even when the evidence provided by science is overwhelming. The largest differences in opinion are stark: 88 percent of scientists said it’s safe to eat genetically-modified (GMO) foods compared to only 37 percent of the public; and 87 percent of scientists said climate change is mostly due to human activity compared with 50 percent of the public. The Pew report, conducted in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), surveyed scientists from multiple disciplines. Among climate scientists, it’s widely reported that 97 percent agree that humans are the primary cause of climate change.
On the topic of whether childhood vaccines should be required, 86 percent of scientists said yes compared to 68 percent of the public. And 98 percent of scientists said that humans and other living things have evolved in comparison to 65 percent of the public—responses that have remained relatively unchanged since the Pew Center first began asking the question in 2009.
“There’s a real gulf between the discovery of knowledge and people making use of it,” says Steve Tonsor, director of science and research at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, who was not at all surprised by the outcomes of the study. “We’ve done a great disservice to the world by making science a kind of priesthood. Everyone, no matter their age or level of formal education, can practice scientific wondering and thinking in their daily lives.”
It’s well-established that the public is deeply divided along partisan lines on many hot-button science issues, with the existence of human-caused climate change most recently at the fore. Often the refrain on both sides is if only the public was better informed there would be less infighting. Yet, remarkably, a 2015 study led by Yale law professor and communications researcher Dan Kahan found that the climate change disagreement did not diminish as study subjects’ climate-literacy test scores increased. “Despite consistently giving the correct answers to climate-literacy questions, the most science literate study participants were even more politically polarized,” writes Kahan.
In other words, people tend to use scientific knowledge to reinforce beliefs that have already been shaped by their worldview. “We never left high school,” Marcia McNutt, a geophysicist and president of the National Academy of Sciences, told National Geographic. “People still have a need to fit in, and that need to fit in is so strong that local values and opinions are always trumping science. And they will continue to trump science, especially when there is no clear downside to ignoring science.”
“We’ve done a great disservice to the world by making science a kind of priesthood. Everyone, no matter their age or level of formal education, can practice scientific wondering and thinking in their daily lives.” – Steve Tonsor, director of science and research at Carnegie Museum of Natural History
It may be misguided, then, to concentrate on what percentage of respondents in any opinion survey say they “believe in” climate change or evolution, says Baruch Fischhoff, head of decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University. “Respondents may not actually be answering the question surveys are asking,” he says. “They’re expressing their cultural identity,” instead of, as hoped, providing a measurement of their knowledge about the topic.
Yale’s Kahan has been experimenting with this idea for several years now. In another exercise, he and his team provided participants with biographies of scientists alongside a summary of the results of their research, and then asked the participants whether the scientists were experts on the issue. When a researcher’s results underscored the dangers of climate change, people who worried about climate change were 72 percentage points more likely to agree that the researcher was legitimate. When the same researcher with the same credentials was attached to results that cast doubt on the dangers of global warming, people who dismissed climate change were 54 percentage points more likely to see the researcher as an expert.
Most of the time, Kahan reports, the public is in fact convinced by the best evidence. There’s virtually no debate, for instance, over a myriad of important science issues: the safety of antibiotics, the fact that heavy drinking impairs people’s ability to drive, the value of the International Space Station. It’s politicized issues that land us in hot water. “Reasoning becomes rationalizing” when it could threaten our crowd, writes Kahan.
Now that he’s conscious of this bias, how does he guard against it in his own life? “I try to find people who I actually think are like me—people I’d like to hang out with—but they don’t believe the things that everyone else like me believes,” he said in an in-depth story about his work in Vox titled, aptly, How Politics Makes Us Stupid. “If I find some people I identify with, I don’t find them as threatening when they disagree with me.”
STEM TO THE RESCUE?
A widely used acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math, “STEM” has come to represent, as Atul Gawande stressed to his commencement audience, a way of thinking that happens, quite literally, through trial and error. STEM learning represents an integrated, real-world approach to demystifying the key study areas of science and math by getting kids immersed in them as early as kindergarten, and in an all-hands-on-deck kind of way.
To prepare young people to take on monster challenges such as climate change, renewable energy, infectious diseases, even science communication, more and more schools are looking at what STEM learning has to deliver: young people who learn how to ask questions, aren’t afraid to fail and try again (and again), and know how to tackle problems as part of a team.
The cornerstones of STEM education: inquiry-based science and math, an integrated curriculum in which no subject is independent of other disciplines, project-based group learning, and career awareness—the answer to the age-old question, What do you want to do when you grow up?
“We empower kids to think through a given problem, judge the evidence, and formulate their own conclusions,” says Jason Brown, the Science Center’s senior director of science and education. “These are not just tools for doing science. It’s a way of thinking, of overcoming obstacles and making better decisions. Application of the scientific method in our everyday lives creates skeptical wonderers who can discern scientific fact from political fiction.”
The Science Center reaches more than 80,000 school children each year through a robust slate of STEM programs. In an effort to incentivize and support schools in strengthening their STEM efforts, the Science Center developed the Carnegie STEM Excellence Pathway, a defined process for continuous improvement of STEM learning. Interest in the Pathway continues to grow: Since its inception in 2014, the program has brought on 359 partners representing 8,229 schools in 19 states, with 126 partners in Pennsylvania alone. The potential reach of these schools: nearly 4 million students. Science Center STEM educators have also conducted individualized workshops involving nearly 2,000 educators.
When Michele Thomas, a STEM specialist at Pathway partner Kiski Area Schools, learned that sixth grade students were assigned The City of Ember, a novel about an underground city threatened by aging infrastructure, she designed hands-on lessons to demonstrate hydroelectricity and hydroelectric generators, the energy source that powered the fictional city of Ember. When they started to convert fractions to decimals in math class, Thomas assigned a delicious task: Whip up a batch of microwave chocolate chip cookies. The catch: All of the ingredients in the recipe were listed in decimals. “Integrating content and skills helps the kids make connections between subjects, but also to real-world application, which is huge,” says Thomas.
Georgia Teppert, assistant to the superintendent at Greater Latrobe School District, a STEM Pathway partner for about 18 months, explains that one of the challenges today is that educators are preparing students for careers and jobs that don’t even exist yet.
“When we talk to employers, they’re looking for somebody who can problem solve, who has those critical thinking skills, who cannot just get to an answer one way. Now that we’re truly integrating STEM, and it’s intentional, we see the changes. Teachers are asking more questions of their students: Why do you think this is true, what is your evidence? And students are more willing to work together on finding the answers.”
The overarching goal is to infuse the all-important 21st-century skills—like critical thinking and team work—into the curriculum. And into the students’ everyday lives.
“When you turn on the TV, whether you’re watching CNN or FOX News, the same information can and often is delivered one way on one station and another way on the next,” says Teppert. “We talk about what skills do you need to dig through it, to gain your full opinion that supports or negates, with the information you have.
“It’s a complex world,” Teppert adds. “These students are used to getting instantaneous information. We used to memorize certain information. Right now, is it important —I’m not saying yes or no—to memorize the capital of every state, or is it better to know where you can go to get the information, and to seek out information to make the best educated decision?”
A FOCUS ON SOLUTIONS
To find out where science communication has broken down between citizens and scientists and how it might be improved, social and behavioral scientists are working in tandem with physical scientists to determine what information is relevant to decision-making on any given topic.
In a 2015 study, CMU’s Fischhoff and his colleague, Gabrielle Wong-Parodi, posed a hypothetical decision: whether to buy a home in Savannah, Georgia, an area subject to storm surges and rising sea levels. Participants were given access to the real-estate map service, Zillow, along with the Surging Seas website (http://ss2.climatecentral.org/), which summarizes the relevant science. Participants were asked if they believed in climate change either before or after the task.
In the end, participants took the same action based on the evidence at hand, regardless of whether they said they believed in climate change, says Fischhoff. “Our interpretation is that, for this practical decision,” he says, “the science regarding the risks of climate change was good enough to make any disagreement about its sources irrelevant. Of course, for an informed debate about energy policy, we do need to consider the science about its sources—and about the costs and benefits of different ways of mitigating it. For that, science museums like the Carnegie Museums can play a vital role.”
Regionally, Carnegie Museum of Natural History has taken a leadership role in informal education around climate change. Museum educators help drive the Pittsburgh Climate & Urban Systems Partnership (CUSP), a network of educators, climate scientists, and learning scientists across the city looking squarely at local impacts and solutions.
CUSP teams of informal educators employ hands-on kits at local festivals and Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s summer camps to focus on small, achievable solutions for Pittsburgh-based impacts, such as how adding green infrastructure—perhaps a green roof—can curb urban flooding.
“People are knowledgeable about their family’s health, their energy bills, the benefits of our local parks and rivers for recreation,” says Laurie Giarratani, the Museum of Natural History’s director of education. “What they may not have considered yet is how these things connect to climate change. If we want people to change their behavior, and delve into complex science, we’ve learned to start with topics that people care about.”
Up until recently, the basic approach to climate education had been that if you could get people to understand just how devastating the future of the planet is, then they’ll be motivated to change their behavior in order to save the sinking ship, she says. But like anti-smoking education that focused solely on naming the toxic and carcinogenic components of tobacco smoke but did not reduce smoking, the doomsday approach to climate education often results in people disengaging and doing nothing; the enormity of the problem is often overpowering.
CUSP is one of six National Science Foundation-funded programs around the country looking for alternative strategies. The five-year grant has also enabled the network of 36 partners to grow in support of one another. “We’ve learned that organizations really need help in talking about this stuff,” Giarratani notes. “It’s hard. The science is complex, it’s politically charged, so having a common set of tools and language to use has been invaluable.”
MORE THAN JUST FACTS
At a time when science and its practitioners face fierce opposition, “showing how we know what we know,” says Carnegie Museums President Jo Ellen Parker, “is more essential than ever.”
But focusing on scientific evidence and reasoning, while necessary, is clearly not sufficient. “We deal with the big issues in life—climate change, evolution, vaccinations for our children—as whole people. As citizens, family members, worshippers, neighbors. That means we have to grasp big issues imaginatively, creatively, and empathetically as well,” Parker says. “We need to bring the full range of human capabilities to arrive at full understanding. The arts and humanities add depth and dimension to scientific knowledge.”
Early this year, Carnegie Museums premiered a new art-science experience bringing together scientists and writers, musicians and visual artists to respond to the question: Will we survive ourselves? Dubbed Strange Times: Earth in the Age of the Human, this Carnegie Nexus series of 12 eclectic performances, films, and lively discussions exploring humanity’s impact on the earth culminates on April 20 with a talk by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Proulx. (See a list of events at nexus.carnegiemuseums.org.)
As one of the greatest social and political challenges of our time, artists have been wrestling with climate change for decades. In 2016, during her year of research travel to far off corners of the world, Ingrid Schaffner, the curator of the 2018 Carnegie International, says she found artists around the globe tussling with the issues of sustainability, green politics as forces of capitalism, and forest management as part of culture. “It’s not a theme of the Carnegie International, it’s a theme of our lives,” says Schaffner. “Artists everywhere are thinking about the environment and scrambling to respond.”
Will they help us see or feel things science has not? Interestingly enough, one of Schaffner’s recent “travel mates” was naturalist Alexander von Humboldt—by way of the best-selling biography, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf.
“Humboldt was always thinking big-picture to draw connections across time and place,” says Schaffner. “That’s what my research travel inspired, maybe more than about finding artists for the International. It was more about me expanding my own sense of the world very basically, and beginning to be able to draw broader connections. Humboldt was very cognizant of thinking of himself as a marker moving through the world, and how important it was for the individual to be your own compass. He had a foot in poetry and a foot in science. That poet part of him was so passionate about what the individual has to contribute and do.”
At the close of his June commencement remarks, Atul Gawande reminded the Caltech graduates about the need to constantly question their assumptions. “The mistake, then, is to believe that the educational credentials you get today give you any special authority on truth,” he warned.
“What you have gained is far more important: an understanding of what real truth-seeking looks like. It is the effort not of a single person but a group of people—the bigger the better—pursuing ideas with curiosity, inquisitiveness, openness, and discipline. As scientists, in other words.”
Or, as Jason Brown affectionately calls them, “skeptical wonderers.”
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