Dr. Tee Guidotti, President of Sigma XI (The Scientific Research Society), was asked in 2014 to discuss several important issues facing the scientific community in the U.S. and the world. As a trained physician and former chairperson of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University’s School of Public Health, he has a broad perspective from which to answer this question.
When addressing important issues facing the scientific community, he did not list the predictable – lack of funding sources, not enough science teachers, competition from scientists in other countries. Rather, he provided (https://www.sigmaxi.org/news/article/2016/06/14/warning!-dangers-ahead-for-science) a collection of ills that exist between the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) community and citizens in the U.S.:
- Science is rapidly losing its standing as the source of “public knowledge” (knowledge used to establish the facts) for resolving disputes and making decisions.
- Science is increasingly considered by others within academe as a non-objective social construct, fundamentally conservative, protective of the status quo, fraught with biases and self-justifying.
- Science communication is generally poor and sometimes counterproductive. The best scientists are usually capable of explaining their work clearly. Alas, most are not.
- Science literacy is frighteningly weak in the U.S., the country that sets the science agenda.
And these are only the first four of nine items! What is striking about the list is that the items fall into two broad categories – those related to understanding the nature and process of science, and those related to communication about that science. Both areas are extremely important to those of us who practice in STEM disciplines and/or who teach students about the STEM disciplines, since deficiencies in either process undermine our own enterprise and the vitality of the entire country.
The natural sciences are, by definition, ways of knowing and understanding the world around us. This “knowing” consists of a collection of concepts that were amassed by painstaking and repeated observation and experimentation, driven by specific questions, and supported by solid evidence from the natural world. This should make the process 100% objective. Though occasional scandals involving misguided or unscrupulous individuals do occur, practitioners of the process maintain a much higher ethical standard than the general public seems to give credit for.
The process of science is conservative in its true meaning – radical change does require extraordinary evidence to conclusively counter our existing understanding of the world. This evidence-based discipline should therefore be buffered from the “herd mentality” of social/cultural trends driven by opinion (sometimes enabled by liberal academics) and from the influences of business driven by short-term profit, since both usually lack a solid basis of evidence to support their unseen beliefs.
Society must use this collected knowledge and evidence to make sound decisions. Medical professionals use this knowledge when making decisions about the best treatments for illnesses from colds to cancers. Each individual physician does not conduct his/her own research, but rather must rely upon (and trust) information gathered from those who do conduct the research. Patients certainly rely upon and trust their doctor to possess and use this knowledge. Delaware’s farmers use this knowledge when deciding when to apply the correct amount of pesticide or fertilizer to a field or how to best provide their chickens with an adequate diet. Each farmer does not conduct his/her own experiments, but rather must rely upon (and trust) the knowledge of those who do. By extension, every citizen of the state relies upon the expertise of STEM professionals who conduct the research and build the technologies that each citizen uses daily. We implicitly have to trust those who gather that knowledge. To willfully reject this knowledge and evidence reduces individuals and society to making random decisions, often without the best outcomes.
Like any discipline, the scientific community employs an extensive set of terminology to facilitate accurate communication among professionals. To the outsider, much of this seems overly-complicated and opaque. I could say the same thing about lawyers, accountants, and those who develop the “user agreements” we must continually agree to each time we update our favorite phone app.
Better communication by scientific professionals (or an interpreter for them) would be most useful, particularly with the aim of getting the public to understand how and why science is conducted. This is one aim of our general education science course at Wesley College – to have all students practice the process of science, thereby appreciating how evidence supports the claims and outcomes of that process. Every citizen does not need to understand the multiple microbial interconversions that nitrogen compounds undergo in the Delaware Inland Bays to understand that excess fertilizer runoff causes eutrophication of these waters. That citizen does need to understand that there is solid evidence that these conversions do take place, that there is solid evidence that excess nitrate from human sources enters the bays, that these nutrients imperil animals and plants, and that poor water quality negatively impacts the quality of life for tourists and those living in coastal Sussex County.
Weak scientific literacy prevents all this informed decision-making from happening and should be the item on Dr. Guidotti’s list that most upsets those of us in the scientific education community. The early push in Delaware for hands-on activities was applauded across the nation. Developing a strong set of K-12 science content standards was a good idea at the time, but seemed to get sidetracked by high-stakes testing. The return to hands-on practice (e.g. wilmingtonnewsjournal.de.newsmemory.com/publink.php?shareid=0d163cbf9) and the cross-cutting concepts in the Next Generation Science Standards can hopefully get us back to emphasizing the process of science.
We have done a good job at educating a select group of students to enter universities to major in STEM disciplines. These students understand how mathematics and the process of scientific investigation work together to form our “knowledge”. We have, however, apparently not succeeded in having the rest of students articulate that the process of hypothesis testing and evidence accumulation builds the “knowledge” about our world.
STEM professionals and educators must work together to explain our actions, show the evidence, and interpret the research findings so that all Delaware citizens rely upon and trust this evidence. When they appreciate the scientific process, are receptive to the evidence produced by this process, and expect public decision-makers to use this evidence wisely, then we can cross some of the items off Dr. Guidotti’s list.
Dr. William Kroen is Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Biology, Chemistry, Physics and the Environment at Wesley College. He is a board member for the Delaware Foundation for Science and Math Education, and past Chairperson of the College and University Section of the National Association of Biology Teachers.