Why should anyone trust science?

A remarkable feature of our current time in history is an increasing distrust of authority, whether the church, the government, or the world of science. It is easy to hypothesize reasons for this distrust, from news of malfeasance to the growth of conspiracy theories on the Internet; but distrust leaves us with very little basis for making public policy. Thus the new book Why Trust Science by geologist and historian of science Professor Naomi Oreskes is both timely and welcome. Our recommendations to improve the NGSS by focusing greater attention on the nature of science are well aligned with Oreskes’ findings.

Perhaps best known for co-authoring the scathing critique of climate denial Merchants of Doubt, Oreskes nevertheless takes her title question seriously. She begins with a historical overview of the philosophy of science. While this essay can be a heavy slog for the non-specialist, it is enlightening to read how thinkers of the past have wrestled with the question of where science’s special authority—and effectiveness—come from. Is it the elevated and disinterested nature of scientists themselves? Does it lie in an internally consistent and universal scientific method? Simple examination of history can demonstrate weaknesses in either formulation.

Partly by examining cases where science has gone right or wrong—the Limited Energy Theory, which held that higher education or a profession would harm a woman’s reproductive faculties; the eugenics movement; the theory of continental drift; resistance to the idea that birth control pills can cause depression; and arguments over the value of flossing our teeth—Oreskes comes up with her own list of five elements. Oreskes calls these elements “pillars” that, when present, make scientific conclusions something we can rely on. The first is consensus: a fringe idea is less trustworthy than one that has been confirmed and widely endorsed by qualified scientists. The next two, method and evidence, line up with what we expect of science and its vetting. But Oreskes adds two more: diversity and values. A diversity of perspectives from qualified members of the scientific community, she suggests, can help prevent or correct the skewed thinking that has led to faulty and biased “science” in the past. Moreover, Oreskes argues that instead of aspiring to a lofty stance of having no values beyond the pursuit of truth, scientists should be up front about their values, for example that we have a moral responsibility to leave a habitable earth to our descendants on the one hand, or that the free market admits of no compromise on the other.

The most entertaining part of the book lies in its five case examples, listed above, which continue into an argument over the value of sunscreen. In each case, Oreskes shows how mistakes that arise can be attributed to neglect of one of her five pillars. She then practices what she preaches by opening her argument to response and critique from five different scientists’ voices. These commentaries approach the problem of trust in science from viewpoints ranging from technology as popular evidence that science “works” to the “replication crisis,” which has led to retractions of published papers and established ideas.

For now, let’s keep an eye on the reasons to trust science that Oreskes has offered. People should trust science when scientific experts on the matter in question, building on evidence and using accepted methods, reach consensus after broad discussion and debate among a diverse group of qualified critics. Conclusions emerging from such science are subject to change—in the same way that Einstein added to and improved Newtonian physics—but it is scientific consensus that provides a firm foundation leading to useful and effective increases in understanding the natural world.

Penny and Andy

Barriers to reading about science for school

A distinguishing feature of the 2010 Common Core State Standards initiative was the increased emphasis on having students read nonfiction books and magazines for school, including reading about science. The name of the standards tells the story: The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts (ELA) & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects.

An increased emphasis on reading nonfiction reflects the reality that as students enter higher grades they need greater skills and stamina for reading informational text. Reading nonfiction calls for different strategies, vocabularies, and habits than reading fiction. Students need to learn to question the text, and to summarize it for themselves to help them retain information. These skills don’t come automatically, so teachers need to help students become better readers of nonfiction. For understandable reasons the authors of the Common Core believed that the responsibility for teaching students to understand literary nonfiction should be shared by teachers in non-ELA classes, notably in history, social studies, and science classrooms.   

However, the glaring absence of any similar language in the Next Generation Science Standards stands as a significant barrier to achieving the Common Core’s goals for reading nonfiction. Science teachers who are guided by the NGSS are simply not encouraged to assign students to read about science, besides reading a textbook or class handout. This is a missed opportunity. After all, in adult life, reading newspapers, magazines and books becomes a vital way for people to maintain and extend their understanding of current science.

What’s more, we recently became aware of a related barrier: the poor availability of science books and magazines in schools. A questionnaire for the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) asked eighth grade science teachers, “To what extent does your school system (including your school and school district) provide you with science magazines and books (including digital forms, such as online magazines and books)?” Remarkably, 30% of teachers responded “none,” i.e. no science books or magazines, and another 35% of teachers responded “a small extent.” Is it surprising then, that 40% of these eighth grade teachers indicated they never have students read a book or magazine about science?

What about the school library, which also includes encyclopedias and newspapers, in addition to books and magazines? In 2015 45% of grade 8 students reported they never used library resources for science class. Similarly, 54% of grade 12 students reported in 2015 never using library resources for science class.

Is this the reality that developers of the NGSS wanted to encourage? Probably not. Although the standards writers undoubtedly wanted to see students carrying out investigations and discussions, they probably meant to include reading and writing among the ways that students should acquire, evaluate and communicate information. The NGSS ought to be explicit in asking science teachers to promote more reading about science among students.

There are many wonderful nonfiction science books available, as well as fictional narratives with a strong scientific base. Who will assign them if the standards suggest they are unimportant? Indeed, who will even encourage young people to stretch their minds through science reading? Reading about science or even science fiction can elicit a love of science, provide a way to pursue personal interests, and sometimes foster young people’s identification with scientists and engineers. National standards should make these kinds of encounters between students and ideas more, not less, likely to occur.

Penny and Andy