Teaching what is true has always been a goal for schools, but learning to distinguish between truth and falsehood in what we see, hear, or read has rarely been so important. Fortunately, there are efforts to strengthen civics education, to improve students’ “news literacy,” and to teach media literacy. Still needed, however, is far greater attention to media literacy, especially in one often overlooked place: science class.
Like print literacy, media literacy is a complex skill that needs repeated exposure and practice to learn well. However, schools usually address media literacy mainly or exclusively in a social science or library class instead of across subjects and grade levels. Yet, simply reading the newspaper makes it obvious that scientific misinformation is a serious problem requiring teachers’ attention. Moreover, science—with its accepted methods for verifying new claims and building common knowledge—provides an ideal domain for honing skills needed to be a critical consumer of information.
Scientific misinformation has become a serious problem. The United States is currently experiencing the most severe measles outbreaks in decades, due in large part to misguided beliefs by some parents that vaccines cause autism. Also, despite the increase in devastating fires and hurricanes, climate change denial has reached alarming political heights. As educators, we know that 45 percent of teens say they are online “almost constantly” (according to the Pew Research Center), and we understand that social media circulates abundant amounts of misleading information about vaping, miracle cures, and many other “scientific” topics.
Providing students with accurate information, scientific or otherwise, is no longer enough.
In light of the proliferation of misinformation, some state and local policymakers are emphasizing the increased responsibility of schools to teach students to separate information from misinformation. Media Literacy Now, an advocacy organization on whose board I serve, has supported grassroots efforts in almost two dozen states resulting in legislative directives for media literacy education being signed into law in eight states (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Utah, and Washington). That is good news, but it is only a start.
Providing students with accurate information, scientific or otherwise, is no longer enough. Teachers also need to educate students how to judge the quality of supposedly accurate information they encounter online, on television or radio, from friends, or anywhere else—specifically including scientific misinformation.
Social science research shows it is possible to “inoculate” people against misinformation; in other words, teachers can use proven approaches to help students learn how to separate science fact from science fiction.
Penny Noyce, a science educator and physician by training, and I explored this research to develop a free one-week unit teachers can use in science classes in grades 6-12. The research-based unit—Resisting Scientific Misinformation—includes a Teacher Guide, handouts, assessment materials, and four free short videos.
In teaching about science misinformation, we recommend teachers focus first on misleading advertising, because researchers have found that understanding techniques used to mislead them helps people resist misinformation. One frequently recurring method used to mislead people is the argument that “the science is uncertain.” Tobacco companies once used this technique to undermine public understanding of the hazards of smoking but eventually paid hundreds of billions of dollars for covering up the truth. Remarkably, climate change skeptics and deniers now use the same misleading argument. In class, students can investigate a number of supposedly scientific claims, some of which turn out to be true and others false.
Next, teachers should help students identify appropriate questions to ask about dubious scientific claims to help decide whether they are credible—questions similar to those used to investigate “fake news” in fields outside science. One mnemonic to help students remember key questions is SAP: S stands for sources (Do reputable sources support the claim?), A stands for author (Who is making the claim and what expertise does he or she have?), and P stands for purpose (Is the purpose to sell something, to provoke an emotional reaction, or to provide information?).
Lastly, students should learn more about the scientific process, including how scientists develop confidence that their conclusions are correct, and the role of scientific and professional organizations in understanding what is true and what is not. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are critical in reviewing, evaluating, synthesizing, and communicating scientific findings, including accurate information about vaccination.
Policymakers are sometimes concerned that focusing on media literacy requires lots of added time in busy school schedules. However, media literacy can often be taught in the context of existing lessons and, as our one-week unit demonstrates, adding a few new lessons can accomplish a great deal. As misinformation spreads at an alarming rate, it is time for all states to support greater media literacy education in schools.
A version of this article appeared in the October 30, 2019 edition of Education Week as Science Fact vs. Science Fiction