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

Comments from another expert reviewer

One of the experts who reviewed a draft of our white paper is Dr. Cary Sneider, an architect of the NGSS, and a member of the NGSS writing leadership team. His comments were extensive and generous, and began, “This is a nicely crafted article that should definitely be published.” Here are other highlights:

I like a lot of what you said about how the NGSS could be improved …. I especially resonate with your comments about distinguishing truth from fiction (and outright lies).

A decision that I lament,” he wrote about development of the NGSS, was to leave out a core idea identified in the Framework for K-12 Science Education (the template for the NGSS), namely, ETS2 – Links among engineering, technology, science, and society. “Some of what you say has been left out [of the NGSS] is included in this core idea,” he said, and we agree. In particular our concern that the NGSS has nothing to say about the relation between science or technology and public policy would be addressed had the NGSS incorporated this core idea from the Framework. As leader of the engineering team of NGSS writers, Sneider takes full responsibility for this missing piece, and hopes it will be reinstated when it’s time to update the NGSS.

At the same time, Sneider, a retired researcher, museum educator, and visiting scholar at Portland State University, expressed a number of reservations about the recommendations offered in the white paper. “It takes more than a decade to implement a new set of standards, especially if they are quite different from what was there before. Also, some states have just recently adopted new standards,” he wrote. So, in his view it is too early to make significant changes to the NGSS. Others have made similar comments, noting how long it takes to fully implement new standards.

Some of the missing pieces we identified in the NGSS, Sneider wrote, are intentionally absent, notably discussion of key principles of science teaching. Although he agrees that appropriate classroom pedagogy is essential for effective science education, the purpose of the standards is just to state what students should know and can do at the end of instruction, and not specify any specific curriculum materials or teaching methods, leaving that up to state officials to provide guidance.

Another of Dr. Sneider’s reservations is that “everyone wants to add topics they think are missing,” but authors of the NGSS were trying to focus on fewer important topics rather than on too many topics taught quickly and ineffectively. “Prior standards have had more than any teacher can do in a year,” he noted. Anyone who wants to add new topics to the NGSS during future updates should at the same time identify other topics that should be taken out to make space for the new material. Otherwise, the process that leads to bloated textbooks will just continue. He recommended that we add a section to our white paper about what could profitably be taken out of the NGSS to make room for the recommended additions.

The last area to highlight in his comments is that Dr. Sneider pointed to Appendix H and some of the “foundation boxes” in the main text of the NGSS as places where the nature of science is already highlighted. “I’m not sure why you feel it is not there,” he wrote.

These are thoughtful comments, which we appreciate. There are obviously large areas of overlap in our views of how to improve the NGSS, as well as significant differences. Rather than try to respond in this post to each of the reservations Dr. Sneider expressed, we will simply refer readers to the white paper. We hope that we provide a sound rationale for each of our suggestions, and as we wrote, we believe that our suggestions could be implemented “without significant disruption to the science curriculum.”

One expert’s comments on the white paper

We asked Professor John L. Rudolph to review a draft of the white paper. Professor Rudolph is chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he educates future science teachers. His recent book How We Teach Science: What’s Changed and Why It Matters is a comprehensive history of American science education from the late nineteenth century to the present, making him exceptionally knowledgeable about how goals of science education have evolved over time.

After reviewing the paper, Professor Rudolph wrote:

“Thanks so much for sharing your white paper on revising the NGSS. I thought it was excellent. I have to say that it aligns almost exactly with my own critique of where science education is currently and where it’s heading under NGSS…. All the things you suggest I would heartily endorse. In fact, your outline of things neglected by NGSS closely parallels the syllabus of the science teaching methods course I teach every fall….


    I think that we’re on the cusp of a change that will begin to prop up the legitimacy and authority of science given the way science and truth have been so thoroughly denigrated in the public sphere of late. Your work will, I think, be part of helping push things in that direction…. It helps that the paper is so very clear and readable too.”

We were optimistic when we asked reviewers for their comments, but frankly we were not sure what experts would think of the white paper. These comments from Professor Rudolph, and others, were encouraging to us. Without widespread support it is unlikely that science education standards will be improved.

The NGSS is one piece of a bigger system

Several reviewers noted that education standards like the NGSS are only one influence on classroom instruction, whether in science or other subjects. We heartily agree! Their comments are an important reminder.

The quality of science teachers, the support they receive, the amount of time allocated to teaching science, the nature of high-stakes tests, support of STEM education by parents and the community—these are just a sample of other important influences on teaching and learning science. One reviewer wrote, “I agree with the ultimate goals for raising scientifically literate students … but I question what new and improved standards will do without addressing the current lack of infrastructure to implement them.”

The white paper does not claim that improving the NGSS is the one and only way to improve science education. At the same time, the NGSS promotes an excessively narrow vision of science and scientific literacy, so we should not be surprised when many teachers adopt that narrow vision.

As an example, too many parents believe that vaccines cause autism. Students graduating high school ought to know that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC) is an excellent source of information about vaccine safety and about many other public health issues. Similarly, students should learn that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) is a primary source of information about the causes and the impacts of climate change. Organizations like the CDC and the IPCC are central to NGSS practice #8, “obtaining, evaluating, and communicating” science-related information, bringing together experts from many institutions to synthesize and vet scientific findings. Such institutions are one key mechanism for determining scientific consensus, if and when it exists. Yet the NGSS makes no mention of any scientific institution. Nor does it explain how science helps to inform public policy—about vaccines, climate, food safety, or other issues. This is short-sighted.

Improving the NGSS is no guarantee that science instruction will improve, yet guidance from national standards cannot be ignored merely because other factors are important, too.

Andy and Penny

Welcome to our blog

Thank you for reading this blog. We will add posts several times each month, or even weekly. You can subscribe by clicking the link at the top of the right column.

Your participation in the conversation about science education standards can be important. Education standards are intended to meet the needs of a large number of individuals and groups. By the same token, changing standards requires widespread discussion before revisions are made.

We worked on the white paper “Opportunities to Improve the Next Generation Science Standards (the NGSS)” for more than six months before posting it on this website in late 2019, making the paper widely available. Earlier, several experts agreed to review a draft and provide comments, for which we are grateful. In future blog posts we will highlight some of the comments and suggestions we received from them and from others, and we invite you to offer your own comments on this blog.

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