Point of View
By Kristy M. Palmer
Someone recently told me, “I believe in science.” As a science teacher, I wondered why the person needed to make this assertion. I did not feel I needed to say it back because it should be a given. I thought that of course the individual should believe in science. This person was against masking at the beginning of the 2020–21 school year but eventually realized, when seeing COVID-19 case rates, that masking would help schools stay open. Why do some people change their minds only because of personal experiences, rather than an abundance of scientific research, conversations with health professionals, and the recommendations of epidemiologists?
Why do people say, “I believe in science”? Why don’t they say, “I believe in reading” or “I believe in music” or “I believe in social studies”? Is it strange that people proclaim they believe in science but do not say the same about other subject areas? If you work in a K–12 school (or teach those who will teach K–12 students), shouldn’t you believe in science as much as you do other subjects? If you are teaching children who see your everyday actions, is it okay for you to act like you do not “believe in science”?
Criticism of science is not new. In the late 1500s and early 1600s, the heliocentric theory first formed by Copernicus and later supported by Galileo contrasted with the more popular geocentric theory. Galileo spent the rest of his life defending his findings. In 1854, John Snow hypothesized that cholera spread in the water because he thought living cells (germs) in contaminated water caused diseases (i.e., germ theory; Cameron & Jones, 1983; Tulchinsky, 2018). Snow realized the new germ theory was not popular, but he hoped to save lives by saying that a “morbid poison” was in the water (Cameron & Jones, 1983). History provides numerous examples of scientific theories not being accepted by the public. Sometimes scientists are not believed because their ideas contradict popular beliefs, and other times they are not believed because of their race, gender, or sexual orientation.
Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm shift refers to situations when scientific anomalies do not support existing scientific views. New scientific ideas explain the anomalies and develop into a new paradigm. The scientific community rejects a previously accepted theory and replaces it with another. Change in perspective through a paradigm shift leads to scientific progress (Kuhn, 1970). Over time, scientific views change when there is a paradigm shift.
The nature of science, which is different than other subjects, could be the reason why some people today feel they need to say, “I believe in science.” The nature of science could be the reason why some people wait for their own experiences (even if it means death) to listen to science. Most nonscientists do not understand the nature of science. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (1994) describes the nature of science as follows: Science is a complex activity, science is durable, science requires evidence, science explains and makes predictions, science cannot provide all the answers, science is not authoritarian, scientific ideas can change, and science tries to avoid bias. Scientists are never 100% confident, and scientists do not “prove” anything because science is tentative. Science is a process, and it is based on the best empirical evidence available at the time.
Instead of “believing in science,” the general public should appreciate, use, and make an effort to know and understand science concepts. Belief is different than understanding, knowing, appreciating, and using. While educators help students understand science, they also have a role to play in helping their students appreciate what science has done in the past, what science does in the present, and how science may change in the future. For instance, everyone should appreciate how scientific developments in the past have substantially reduced the likelihood of a woman or child dying during childbirth. Increasing the use, understanding, and appreciation of science can help us mitigate future effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as set an example for how society can use science to curb future pandemics and address other challenges.
The public needs to learn about the nature of science to better understand how science fits into society. All K–12 teachers (not just science teachers) and administrators should learn about the nature of science and promote the use and appreciation of science. For people who work with children, learning about the nature of science is necessary because science is different than other subjects. Learning about the nature of science should be required for all teachers and principals because of the impact educators have on society and our children. Additionally, those teaching future teachers and administrators should seriously consider incorporating the nature of science into their own lessons. What we learn about science changes, but as long as science is taught in schools, all educators and administrators should appreciate, use, and work to understand—and help others understand—science.
American Association for the Advancement of Science. (1994). Science for all Americans: Project 2061. Oxford University Press. http://www.project2061.org/publications/sfaa/online/sfaatoc.htm
Cameron, D., & Jones, I. (1983). John Snow, the Broad Street Pump and modern epidemiology. International Journal of Epidemiology, 12(4), 393–396.
Kuhn, T. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions (2nd ed.). University of Chicago Press.
Tulchinsky, T. H. (2018). John Snow, cholera, the Broad Street pump: Waterborne diseases then and now. Case Studies in Public Health, 77–99. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-804571-8.00017-2
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