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The concept of science is facing a time of rapid change in an information-driven era.

Gone are the days that students turned only to vetted, printed textbooks, newspapers, and magazines for science information. Now, quick Internet searches reign, with thousands of pages published by both scientists and the public alike. A typical chemistry lab is no longer just beakers and test tubes — it is now overrun with computers, computational models, and miles of data readouts. Goodbye to straightforward facts about science—hello to controversy and conflicting arguments on social media.

It is no surprise that our students face a confusing portrait of what science truly is, especially in today’s contexts. Students may be wondering:

  • Why would anybody argue about science?
  • Can research data ever be wrong?
  • Isn’t science all about facts?

Such ponderings from young and curious minds are not surprising, given the context of traditional science education and its dry mainstays of textbooks and lab demonstrations. The intention of science education is often to act as a gateway to future careers, and as a foundation that will help informed citizens better engage with science issues. Traditionally, educating students to meet such goals required building up content information in preparation for higher education in the sciences. However, as teachers today, we fight a new battle of preparing our students to confront an increasingly contentious frontier — one that challenges science’s very credibility as a field, in the face of far more information than we had access to in the past.

As a graduate student examining students’ evaluation of scientific claims in new media environments, I’d like to share a few major takeaways from my last few years of research.

Science is Contentious, but Scientific Consensus is how the Contention Ends

Does science ever disagree? As a chemistry and biology teacher at the high school level, I fielded an increasing number of questions from students about “research” and “scientific information” that appeared on the Web and social media, which often ran contrary to established conclusions found in textbooks. A sample of what my students found included:

  • Websites citing research showing that vaccines are safe.
  • Other websites citing research showing there are dangerous toxins in vaccines.
  • Tweets stating that there’s no research testing vaccine safety on pregnant women and infants.

In some cases, my students even argued that the textbooks were incorrect or lied to them. But in other ways, the students weren’t wrong. Historically, textbooks have been a staple of science education for communicating established conclusions as a body of knowledge, along with some description of science as a way of investigating — usually portrayed as the steps in “the scientific method.” But as a source of scientific information, textbooks are sadly flawed.

Scientific research is argumentative by nature. In contrast, science textbooks front-load students with “facts” in unquestioned tones, condensed from long lines of messy research. Textbooks rarely contain elements of argumentation,1,2 even though conflicting arguments are a hallmark of early scientific research on breaking topics. Textbooks, written in their expository tone, are also dissimilar to the persuasive, journalistic rhetoric used in media reports about scientific research that appear in everyday newspapers and magazines.3,4 It is no wonder that students walk away from their science coursework, little anticipating that science ever involves disagreement or controversy, or that it only comes to eventual consensus after tedious battles in research.

While textbooks have a long way to go in improving the portrayal of science, as classroom teachers, we can provide our students with a more accurate perspective of scientific knowledge. One way to start is to frame science as the hard-earned product of argumentation. Here are three recommendations for doing so:

  1. Establish transparency with your students about how science comes about, and the central role that argumentation plays. Yes, people argue about science — all the time. Even scientists argue about science, and this is what drives scientific research. Without different explanations to consider and test (and even reject!), we would not have come to the best explanations for natural phenomena. What’s more, the most solid explanations offered by science have fended off a long series of challenges and alternative explanations to eventually emerge as the “best” arguments we have.
  2. On a related note, emphasize to your students that not all claims about science are “born equal.” Especially in this day and age, where social media gives a voice to anyone with an Internet connection, it is easier than ever to hear alternative arguments against long-established conclusions.
  3. Encourage your students to think like scientists, and not just by filling out their lab notebooks. Challenge them to question information that they hear about — even their own lab conclusions — using the claim-evidence-reasoning framework 5 . Here are a few of the types of questions they could ask:
    • Is the speaker giving you a fact? Or is it merely a claim or inference that might not be defensible?
    • If it’s a claim, what evidence does the speaker present to you?
    • If there’s evidence, how does the speaker connect it to the claim, and does the explanation even make sense? Many of the most compelling pseudoscientific arguments are backed by explanations that are logically flawed, biased, or not scientifically sound.
Reaching beyond Data Collection and Observation

Data, data, data – it is a buzzword of contemporary times, and a staple of science lab observations. But what does data analysis really mean today?

Another major component of science coursework, the lab exercise, is also surprisingly inaccurate as a depiction of real scientific research and data analysis. While many of us remember cookbook-style chemistry labs that demonstrated known principles, the work that happens in modern chemistry involves interpreting the unknown and making sense of technologically-aided observations.

Traditional roles of scientists are now increasingly computerized or performed by machines, leading to the decline of routine tasks based on memorization, rules, or procedural knowledge. Technology has given scientists the opportunity to make more observations than ever with less effort. But with this added power comes the more daunting task: making sense of it all. Now, it is not uncommon for scientists to deal with “big data,” which requires critical thinking skills of analysis and interpretation. Furthermore, analysis and interpretation comes with additional levels of complexity: choosing the best ways to analyze your data and knowing the limitations of your interpretations. Recent research has suggested that an emphasis on abstract problem solving, analysis, and critical thinking is crucial for today’s students of science as they pursue future careers as scientists.6

As teachers, we can put our students on a more effective track by assigning more than rote work as dictated by the lab manual. Any time in which students collect data, there is the opportunity to let them take it a step further. Examples include:
  1. Give your students a chance to evaluate the data they collect—especially if the numbers are not right. We may want to ask our students, is this data in the ballpark of what we expected? How far off are we from our expectations? Giving anomalous data, a second look can turn what could be a missed learning opportunity into a rich opportunity for deeper thinking and discussion.
  2. As a follow-up to #1, probe your students to engage in critical thinking and do some error detection. What potential missteps could explain unexpected results? Where in the interpretation of the data could bias or bad assumptions have been introduced? Knowing why the wrong answers are wrong is as important as knowing why the right answers are right.
  3. Apply these principles to other people’s “data”—including that of studies the students may encounter in everyday media. For older students, provide the opportunity to ask: Where is there room for error, and do these errors impact the conclusions of the research in ways that cannot be ignored?
Breaking the bubble of “perfect science”

Increasingly prominent in the public dialogue is the narrative of science failing the public, or even science being dishonest. Often, we see articles in the media exposing medical procedures that are now found to be dangerous, or research findings that cannot be replicated. It is then no surprise that arguments — often backed by “data” from “research” — might sound compelling, if not shocking, even when running contrary to facts from science class that are accepted without question. Enter the conspiracy theories — science isn’t a neat and tidy sack of facts from school, and scientists were actually wrong!

The truth is, science has never been a fairytale of fortuitous discoveries that popped into a genius’s mind and changed the world for better from that day forward. Despite this fact, educational research has shown that over the last 40 years, widely-used high school chemistry textbooks have fared poorly in how they represent the nature of science, including its tentative nature, the social context of scientific research, and the nuances of scientific reasoning.7

For students to become savvy consumers of science in the midst of an overloaded world of science “information,” we tie up the aforementioned skills and introduce the context of what science really is. To evaluate scientific arguments and data critically, it is vital for students to understand the actual context in which scientific knowledge came about … and it’s definitely not always a hero’s tale. Here are some ideas for encouraging students’ critical thinking on this topic:

  1. Introduce students to the value and time-tested nature of established conclusions. Some conclusions are backed by historic evidence that continues to ring true, in study after study. In contrast, some conclusions are in new areas in which scientists are only beginning to break ground, and what we know is new, exciting, and liable to be contested or challenged as more research comes about. While some scientific discoveries are truly so new that it makes sense to take them with a grain of salt, others have been continually tested and consistently defended through decades of investigative work. Science is often a work in progress — and what we actually know, only time will tell.
  2. Surprise! Some bad ideas have indeed persisted in science (think Lamarck’s theory of evolution), and were only altered or even debunked after enough scientific data disproved them. Treat such examples as great opportunities to show students the value of critique in the scientific process, and encourage them to engage in this scientific practice. Good scientists call out loopholes and weak research, and draw attention to the need for replication or a better-designed study. Scientific research is a work of art that gets improved on.
  3. The criteria for valid and logical “research.” With the amount of information that is readily available today, it is easy for anybody to say that they have “done their research” before making their point. Encourage your students (especially older students gearing up for a career in science research!) to think about some realistic questions, such as:
    • What did this person do to “research” this point? Are these their own observations, or do they come from many people? How did they make these observations? If they’re not from observations, what is the actual source?
    • If this research came from other people, is the data representative of what most research says? What type of studies were cited? Or was this an isolated case that was cherry-picked to make a point?
    • Does the author’s interpretation make logical sense, and is it a fair judgment of the observations that were found? Conclusions are only as good as the reasoning linking the claim to the evidence.
Closing Thoughts

Our students live in a great age, where science information is more plentiful than ever, opening their minds to viewpoints outside of the classroom’s confines. In many ways, this greater access to information can give our students the potential to become far stronger scientists than any generation in the past. However, with this blessing comes the need for new skills and emphases in the science classroom to effectively navigate a changing information landscape, and gain the most value from these times of TMI.

References
  1. Guzzetti, B. J., Snyder, T. E., and Glass, G. V. Promoting conceptual change in science: Can texts be used effectively?, Journal of Reading 1992, 35, No. 8, 642-649.
  2. Tippett, C. D. Refutation text in science education: A review of two decades of research. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education 2010, 8, No. 6: 951-970.
  3. Perloff, R. M. The Dynamics of Persuasion: Communication and Attitudes in the Twenty-first Century. Routledge: Abingdon-on-Thames, UK, 2010.
  4. Zimmerman, C., Bisanz, G. L., Bisanz, J., Klein, J. S., and Klein, P. Science at the supermarket: A comparison of what appears in the popular press, experts’ advice to readers, and what students want to know. Public Understanding of Science 2001, 10, No. 1: 37-58.
  5. McNeill, K. L. and Krajcik, J. Inquiry and scientific explanations: Helping students use evidence and reasoning. In Science as Inquiry in the Secondary Setting; Luft, J., Bell, R. L., and Gess-Newsome, J., Eds.; NSTS Press: Arlington, VA, 2008, 121-134.
  6. Roschelle, J., Bakia, M., Toyama, Y. and Patton, C. Eight issues for learning scientists about education and the economy. The Journal of the Learning Sciences 2011, 20, No. 1: 3-49.
  7. Abd‐El‐Khalick, F., Waters, M. and Le, An‐Phong. Representations of nature of science in high school chemistry textbooks over the past four decades. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 2008, 45, No. 7, 835-855.