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MSPnet Blog: “Truth decay and STEM education”

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posted March 7, 2018 – by Brian Drayton

Where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution)… the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist, why such topics can generate controversy, and how scientific discoveries can profoundly affect society.

Wording like this  (sometimes called “the Santorum language,” originating from the quondam Senator from Pennsylvania) has been part of legislation proposed annually in many states (and adopted in several).  The goal, sometimes stated explicitly, is  to provide a justification for the introduction of “alternatives” to such well-established but uncomfortable ideas as evolution and climate change. (See here for the 2017 scorecard of what I will call science control legislation, prepared by the National Center for Science Education).

Such language, which on the surface just is encouraging students to make up their own minds, and “think critically,” reflects the current high level of relativism being propagated and exploited to serve a variety of political and social agendas. The proponents of such legislation can have no idea what it means to “understand the full range of scientific views” on a topic such as evolutionary biology or climate change, much less for K-12 students to make their own informed choices about which views  they will espouse. The purpose, rather, is to convey a notion that science is primarily a matter of opinion, untrammeled by the constraints of theoretical coherence or empirical findings.

This is one manifestation of what an interesting study by RAND corporation calls “truth decay.”  The report examines how several powerful cultural developments have combined to render constructive social discourse and critique more and more difficult — amounting to what Al Gore some years ago called “the assault on reason.” The authors address 4 features (they call them trends) defining this decay (pg xi):
1. Increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data;
2. A blurring of the line between opinion and fact;
3. The increasing relative volume, and resulting influence of, opinion and personal experience over fact;
4. Declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information.

The report suggests that this syndrome of trends is being driven by multiple causes.

  1. Characteristics of cognitive processing — for example, “cognitive bias,” and other ways in which we hear or communicate selectively, in ways that support our identities, our loyalties, our fears, or other aspects of our personalities or histories;
  2. Changes in the information system — including the rise of social media, the proliferation of media information sources, and the rapid, broad transmission of misinformation and disinformation.
  3. Competing demands on the educational system that list its ability to keep pace with changes in the information system;
  4. Polarization — sociodemographic, political, and economic.

Some of these are not new (as a lengthy historical chapter discusses), but the current deterioration of shared bases for discussion and debate is as severe as it is, because  all 4 “drivers” are active at the same time, and in ways that mutually reinforce each other.

I read the sections relating to #3 with particular interest.  The authors concede that schools can’t be expected to fix the current dysfunction — but they certainly believe that schools share some fault. For one thing, the Common Core makes some positive moves towards the teaching of critical thinking, but

these changes… have not occurred at the same time or at the same speed as many of the changes in the information system.. It is this lag, and this gap between the challenge and student preparation that we argue has been a driver of  Truth Decay because… it contributes to the creation of an electorate that is susceptible to bias, information, and misinformation, and is also liable to perpetuate this information and the challenges that come along with Truth Decay.

The authors clearly feel that if Education Reform had proceeded more rapidly and completely, we would not be in the pickle we are in.  More civics education and more teaching of critical thinking are the ticket, and as soon as possible!    They advocate teaching Civics and Critical Thinking as subjects in themselves but also acknowledge that critical thinking at least can be integrated in the way that subject matter is taught:

According to one study, students who are trained to conduct higher-level critical thinking tasks as part of the course curriculum learn material more deeply and completely and are better able to engage with it and apply it than those who are trained only to memorize and supply basic facts and responses.

Of course, there lurks beneath some of the language here the common canards that “traditional education” as the authors imagine it was 100 years ago still obtains in most schools, and that if only schools would be more modern they’d be a major part of the solution to the problem of critical thinking and Truth Decay.  As for science, education in the “scientific method” is the prescription offered here; there is little evidence in the document that the authors have any acquaintance with research about science education or the standards juggernaut that has roiled and re-shaped the accepted ideas of what good science education should be…

The study is useful, and its framework of “trends” and “drivers” I have found helpful and can make use of.  On the other hand, as far as I am concerned, a more urgent problem is the widespread ignorance, motivated reasoning, and polarization of the adults currently making legislation, setting standards, and trying to make policy in the absence of critical thinking, a knowledge of civics, and an understanding about how science asks questions of nature, and sets about getting (and interrrogating) some answers.  As exemplified in some of the legislation perennially introduced to make science less uncomfortable, and to restrain the wildness of curiosity and the freedom of inquiry.

NOTE:  The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author. They are not necessarily shared by MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.



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