Teaching in and around a Climate of Anti-Science

Every now and then I’ll have a conversation with a completely earnest student who holds anti-scientific beliefs.  It could be

  • Evolution
  • Climate Change
  • Genetically Modified Organisms
  • Vaccination
  • Scriptural literalism
  • Occultism

There are more, but I’m sure you get the idea. In my experience, these are the most common. Notice first, that some of these issues we associate with right-leaning politics (e.g. evolution and climate change) but others are associated with left-leaning politics (e.g. GMOs and vaccination). While it is true that every one of these issues is frequently mobilized for political reasons, there is no political monopoly on anti-science.

So here you are, teaching away and a student says to you, “evolution is a lie” or “vaccines cause autism”. Now what?

Ok. You’ve picked your jaw off the floor. And you size up the situation. What class is this? If you’re in the middle of choral music, probably the best idea is to say something like, “That’s an interesting point of view. Now let’s return to the score at measure 91. Altos…” Silliness aside, this is not mere conflict avoidance. You’ve got a job to do and this student is introducing an irrelevant topic, stopping you from teaching and your class from learning the approved curriculum. I’m dead serious. Sometimes, no matter how you feel about the topic, you need to just let it go. Of course, you could invite the student to speak with  you outside of class. In fact, it’s a good idea. But don’t take the bait.

But what if the claim is relevant to the day’s lesson? Now you’ve got to respond. Again, it’s important not to let a politically motivated position hijack the discussion; don’t spend all class on it unless there is a good (curriculum-motivated) reason to do so.

So what to say? This is going to seem contradictory at first, so bear with me.

  1. If this is a science class, defend the science.
  2. Try to leave the child’s deep commitments as intact as possible.

Let me start with the second point first. We’re not teaching kids to destroy their beliefs, challenge their families or alter their fundamental ways of living. It’s easy to find educational theorists who subscribe to radical revision of children’s minds in school. That’s not our job. Maybe it will be one day (I hope not), but right now it’s not our job. Our job is to teach the prescribed curriculum. If you have grander ideas than that, perhaps it’s time for a little self-reflection.

But it’s science class, dammit. The point of science class is to learn science. This involves both learning what the current state of the art is in the chosen topics (at a level appropriate for the developing young minds) and learning how to frame, pose and explore scientific ideas. There is no place for “this science may be ok for you, but it’s not ok for me” in any science education worthy of the name.

When you’re engaged in science, it’s pretty clear that evolution is a fundamental feature of modern biology. The basic ideas are well known and are universally agreed upon (at least amongst biologists). There are disputes over a large number of details, but not over the basic question of whether species change over time. If you’re doing biological science, then you have no choice but to accept that evolution is a fundamental principle of the field. Vaccines work. And they don’t cause autism. There are some side effects to some vaccines. There are a number of important caveats to vaccination: this is where knowledge of reputable scientific sources comes in. But the general ant-vaccination thesis one encounters these days is inconsistent with the best available evidence and current scientific consensus.

Speaking of consensus, how should we deal with the counter-thrust: “truth is not a matter of a show of hands”? Well, first, let’s acknowledge that the statement is perfectly reasonable. Human activity is or is not contributing to changing global climate, and the truth of the matter is independent of our current beliefs. Absolutely. But that’s not the point of bringing up scientific consensus. As fallible humans, we are work with incomplete information and imperfect analysis. What’s more, most teachers and students are not experts in the scientific field being questioned. Pragmatically, who should we believe? It seems to me that scientists are more likely correct about scientific matters than are non-scientists. They’re not infallible; but if the majority agree, then that’s the safest place to put your trust.

As I read through this, I’m not sure I’ve said much that’s new or challenging. I don’t know. But let’s try to balance kindness and respect for students—even when they hold wacky positions—and fidelity to the subjects we are charged with teaching.

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3 thoughts on “Teaching in and around a Climate of Anti-Science

  1. Jon, while I most certainly understand the requirements of “getting through the curriculum,” I think the appropriate response in a science classroom to the above is: “That’s really nteresting. How do you know that?” And then the discussion becomes about the most important aspect of science there is: How do you know? What does it mean to know? How is knowing something scientifically different from knowing something emotionally or intuitively, and so on. How much evidence is enough? What kinds of questions can science answer, and what kinds of questions can it not answer? Where do the questions that science ask come from? These all seem to me like fine and necessary conversations to have on an ongoing basis, conversations that should be running throughout the years of science class that a student takes.

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    • I agree Jack. But sometimes you have to make hard decisions. Is this a fruitful discussion? Is it the best thing for us to be doing at this moment? Is this child being sincere, or am I being trolled?

      It the time is right, you absolutely have to follow up. But you also have a job to do.

      Teaching is more art than science.

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