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Science Denial in the Classroom: What Causes It? How Should Teachers Respond?

By Stephen Sawchuk — November 23, 2021 16 min read
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For years, educators have assumed that if we could only give students the right science knowledge in the right way, we’d improve both K-12 students’ understanding of science and, by extension, public understanding of science.

But a new book, Science Denial, by two science education researchers, argues that proponents have neglected a few important pieces of the equation: Americans’ very attitudes and dispositions toward science are shaped by personal beliefs and networks, by cognitive misperceptions, and by a fundamental lack of understanding of how scientific knowledge develops.

Understanding those challenges helps explain why, from evolution to climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, so many Americans reject the prevailing scientific consensus, say the co-authors, Gale M. Sinatra, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, and Barbara K. Hofer, a professor emerita of psychology at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Education Week sat down with Sinatra to discuss the core themes of the book and what K-12 science teachers can do to understand the roots of science denial and weed them out of their own classrooms. Her responses have been lightly edited for clarity and space.

Q: One of your arguments in the book is that we’ve missed a key component: helping students cultivate a scientific attitude, as well as knowledge. What are some of the obstacles to this?

A: As educators, we had hoped or would hope it’s simply filling students with knowledge—this sort of deficit view that there’s this empty vessel, and you just pour the knowledge in—would work. But of course, that doesn’t work in any area of education, and it certainly doesn’t work in science. And the reason why is that, first of all, we have many preconceived notions about how science works that really are inconsistent with science. For example, our impression is that the sun rises and sets and our impression is that the earth is flat. And so all the impressions we get about science from interacting with our day-to-day experience aren’t really consistent with how science works.

Because science is in many ways nonintuitive, it doesn’t work to just give people the scientific perspective because it requires a different kind of instruction to get past that. But even that isn’t enough because it isn’t simply a matter of knowing the correct scientific information. Lee McIntyre [a philosopher who studies the development of scientific knowledge] has written about what a scientific attitude is: The scientific attitude is being open to new information and having a willingness to change your mind about that new information.

There’s a number of psychological factors that lead to doubt, resistance, and even denial of that scientific information: emotions, motivations, identity. So the kinds of things that really influence whether or not people accept the scientific point of view depend on a host of factors, not just how much they understand that basic science itself.

Q: A big theme of the book is that our approach toward science is shaped by beliefs, emotions, attitudes, and membership in social groups. How does this work?

A: Identity groups really make a difference in how people view an issue. And they don’t really allow you to readily shift your thinking the way a scientific attitude would afford.

A really poignant example was just not too long ago during the surge with the Delta variant. In the Ozarks in Missouri, a group of people whose friends and neighbors were pretty anti-vax got concerned and wanted to get vaccinated and showed up at vaccination sites in disguise. And I think that shows you first the power of the identity group in forming opinion, but also the power of the identity group in keeping people in the fold of the beliefs of that group, and then really creating a resistance to change. Nobody wants to be kicked out of their group.

My co-author and I have both done research in the past on evolution and understanding and climate change education. And both of us have seen students [who are deeply religious] say things like, for evolution, “If I were to believe I’m related to an animal, I would have no reason to go on living,” or “You know, if I accept that I’m related to an animal, who would I be?” So we see that identity groups’ beliefs really are profoundly influential on how people view scientific information. And they create sometimes a reluctance to change, even when a student or person is interested in potentially changing their mind.

Q: In the book, you give a powerful illustration of how emotions can be caught up in science, and how even young students can have very visceral reactions to scientific change: When Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006.

A: That was research done by a graduate student of mine at the time. She was interested in emotions in the classroom and how they impact changing your thinking about a scientific concept. Pluto had just been reclassified as a dwarf planet, so she went to a bunch of 4th and 5th graders to see what their thoughts were about this. And they weren’t good! Students were pretty upset about Pluto’s new status, and they had lots of negative emotions. We’re not really sure what that is due to, but we think it’s just that students, they know the alphabet, they knew the nine planets, it was something they knew.

And this is a really interesting point about science and how science is conveyed. Science is usually conveyed as what’s in your textbook: a collection of facts. It’s not conveyed as what it really is. What it really is is a process, a process for understanding the natural world. And in that process, a strength of science is its ability to change based on new evidence and new ways of thinking. So when we present science to students as a collection of facts in your textbook, they don’t expect planets to change from planets to something else.

Gale Sinatra

We saw that the whole country got a very stark lesson in the nature of science this past year, during the coronavirus, when at first we were told that you should maybe wipe down your groceries when you come home from the store. Then we were told, no, you don’t need to do that. Now you need to wear a mask. And a lot of people said, “Hey, wait a minute. These scientists are confused or even lying or misrepresenting.” And, of course, it’s not that at all. It’s just that science changes based on new evidence.

In both those examples—the students in the study, citizens who were angry about policy changes—[people] really reacted strongly to the notion that science shouldn’t be changing.

To wrap up the Pluto conversation, students in that study did accept the new scientific definition when it was explained to them. And they were a little less unhappy about it.

And I think that also illustrates that science is what it is. I mean, who would want the coronavirus to be spread as an aerosol? Sometimes science isn’t particularly pleasant in terms of what the implications are. And so that’s an emotionally evocative thing, too.

I think we see this now with climate anxiety. Even people who understand and accept that humans are contributing to climate change have very negative emotions, maybe anxiety, maybe hopelessness, maybe fear. And so all of these emotions can be challenging for us to get past, to accept and understand the science.

Q: Given the creep of polarization, media echo chambers, the algorithms that tend to reinforce rather than challenge our biases, do you have any sense whether K-12 students are coming in with stronger built-in beliefs and attitudes that are affecting the dispositions toward science than maybe they did 10 or 20 years ago?

A: I do think so. And I think it’s not the kids, but it’s the parents. I mean, we have seen parents showing up at school board meetings, pretty angry about masks or vaccination policies.

We haven’t seen kids being pretty angry about masks; we’ve seen kids being pretty anxious to get back to school and to be with their classmates. And we’ve seen a lot of willingness of the kids to be able to wear the mask.

It is true that our polarized environment has contributed to some really strong feelings on both sides, mostly on parents’ sides. But, of course, the parents share their viewpoints with their family members, and the children do, of course, get exposed to these views one way or the other, right?

One of the things we do emphasize is this is not an “us and them” issue. This is not a Right and Left issue. We can all be what Barbara and I call cafeteria deniers: We all pick and choose certain things we accept and other things we are hesitant to accept in regards to science.

Q: As humans, we take cognitive shortcuts. When we don’t understand things, we look to anecdotal experiences. We make correlations that seem to make sense. We leap to conclusions. How do we help students understand why these shortcuts can lead us astray and why the development of scientific knowledge is different from knowledge in other domains?

A: The way that we’re sort of set up to function cognitively is we have sort of a System One and a System Two. System One is our quick sort of heuristic judgments. And we make those all day long, and they’re very important to us. So when you’re driving down the road and you see a ball bounce out into the street, you don’t want to think that over; you want to hit the brakes in case a child is coming after that ball. That’s System One; you don’t really think, you just reflexively respond. And that’s very useful to us in our day-to-day existence, but that isn’t the kind of thinking you want to employ when you’re trying to decide whether to get a vaccination or to take ivermectin instead.

According to the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, System Two thinking is that reflective thinking where you stop and you deliberately weigh issues. You look for evidence, you look for counter-evidence, you’re weighing issues and arguments. That kind of thoughtful, deliberative thinking has to be employed for understanding complex scientific issues, and that takes work.

We’re sort of cognitive misers. We don’t spend our day doing that level of reflection. We really can’t. It would exhaust us. But for weighing important issues, like whether you should get a vaccination or not, that’s something that you really need to expend that cognitive effort to think carefully about the issues, weigh the alternatives, and come up with a reasonable decision.

Can students do this? Absolutely. We have scaffolds we’ve developed for instructional activities for students. And when you think about science teachers, it isn’t a matter of just presenting the scientific evidence. It’s letting kids sort through that evidence themselves.

Q: In the book, you note examples of things that have undermined trust in how science knowledge is developed: the media both-siding topics like climate change, for example. But I also think about the Tuskegee experiment, the retracted Lancet article on autism and vaccines—they have all done their damage. What do you think the role of science educators is in helping to rebuild trust in science and in the way scientific knowledge develops?

A: I think the best thing science educators can do is to explain more about how scientists know what they know and what they don’t know and how and why they don’t know it. I think that would have helped citizens this past year to understand some of these changes in policy recommendations regarding COVID. People were so confused that things were changing, but that’s because I think we do not teach enough about the nature of science itself, the epistemology of science. In other words, how does science know what it knows? What is the process by which we know something? And how is it that we don’t know something, or why don’t we know it?

Science is conducted by humans. So it has all the frailties that humans have. You can have a fraudulent study conducted by a nefarious actor. The reason why we don’t trust a single study is because science is really only about the accumulation of evidence that must be replicated over and over until you have faith in that evidence.

That’s why the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report is something we should trust; because it’s hundreds of scientists and thousands of studies compiled, which are all sending basically the same message about humans’ role in impacting the climate. That’s what we call consensus science.

You should help students understand that that’s what we should trust, not a single study that comes out and says that you should eat chocolate for breakfast because you’ll lose weight. Maybe one study found that, but how many participants did you have? And was it replicated?

Q: Tell me a little bit about how we can harness science labs toward better ends in pursuit of these goals of understanding how science works.

A: Well, let me start with a Next Generation Science Standards-aligned project that I did that was not lab-based. So with my colleagues here at USC, we created a curriculum called speedometry. We used Hot Wheels cars and tracks to teach 4th graders about the concepts of force and motion. And we did it in an NGSS-aligned way. And what students did was ask and answer questions of their own about the cars, and whether this car would go faster or slower down a ramp if you add a penny taped to the top, and all different questions that students had. And they learned a lot and enjoyed a lot of the activities because we were leveraging their natural interest, curiosity, and enjoyment of playing with these toys.

So that wasn’t particularly lab-based, but it was consistent with NGSS because the focus was on the process of science and these practices that NGSS emphasizes like asking and answering questions and using evidence to come to a conclusion.

I think what you want to avoid are these “cookbook” labs [labs that spell out an exact scientific hypothesis and procedures for conducting an experiment, much like a recipe.] Students should be able to ask their own questions. So that’s very important because that creates motivation and interest. And if you have a cookbook lab, it really just illustrates maybe a process or procedure, but it’s not necessarily engaging. And it’s not necessarily letting students answer a question of their own interest.

Q: How would you assess where we are with Next Generation Science Standards? They’re not new, but it’s taken a while for curriculum resources that embodied the spirit of the standards to be developed. Could you ballpark where you think we are with them, where we’ve been successful, and where we might need to go?

A: I think where we’ve been successful with them is focused on this idea of practices, because that definitely gives a better notion of science as a process and a practice. And many states have adopted them.

Where we’ve had less success, there wasn’t enough teacher professional development. When we did this speedometry project, I had one 4th grade teacher I was interviewing afterward, and she said, “You know, I really enjoyed it, because this was the first time I ever taught science.” This teacher had never felt comfortable teaching science because she didn’t really know how to do it.

Science really got pushed aside with the emphasis [on math and reading], or it’s not taught in teacher-certification programs. And then [teachers are] not given enough professional development opportunities to feel comfortable teaching it. When we look at teachers’ scientific knowledge, it’s really general, particularly elementary [teachers’]. Of course, we have scientists teaching in high school, but with elementary [teachers], we don’t see that their knowledge is particularly higher than the general public, and that’s disconcerting. They really need to have better scientific knowledge themselves to feel the confidence they need to support their students.

Q: Here’s a much more specific question about ways to change students’ minds about their misperceptions: a refutation text. Can you explain what it is and how it works?

A: In my research team, one of the ways we’ve helped people overcome misconceptions that they have, which are making them resistant to the scientific information, is a refutation text.

What it does is states the common misconception about a topic. Then it refutes that and says that’s not correct. And then, importantly, it explains the correct conception. An example might be, “Some people think that humans can’t impact the climate. That is not correct. Scientists have shown that humans can impact the climate.” And here’s how, and it explains that scientific point of view. So it has those three components.

We’ve used these types of texts to upend misconceptions people have about climate change, evolution. Other people have used them on vaccines. We’ve used them on misconceptions people have about [genetically modified organisms]. So we’ve used them on a variety of topics. And we find when you can change a misconception—particularly a misconception that’s holding people back from accepting the scientific point of view—you can shift their attitude toward that information and some of the negative emotion and attitudes as well.

Q: For educators who are starting out, with students who are maybe more resistant to some of these things or who are dealing with more scrutiny in their teaching, where do they start?

A: Well, we definitely think that teachers need to up their own understanding of science in any way they can through professional-development opportunities, learning more about science, learning more about the nature of science, and teaching in a way to promote that kind of inquiry and problem solving based on the scientific practices outlined in the NGSS. We also think it would be extremely important for teachers to be teaching about digital and algorithmic literacy.

We talk about digital literacy because kids look for scientific information online. How do you do that? How do you source it? And we all need to now know that if you were to be interested in whether humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time and you ask kids to Google that, they need to understand that the first [answer] that pops up might say yes, which is incorrect, because it probably gets more clicks, and things that get more clicks might appear higher in your Google search due to the way algorithms work.

Q: And what would you say to policymakers?

A: You know, science is one of the best economic engines this country has ever known. The return on investment of every dollar we spend on scientific research is manyfold over. We have cut back our scientific investment over time and at an alarming rate. This contributes not only to lack of innovation for dealing with pandemics and climate change, but also it contributes to scientists looking for funding elsewhere.

So when they’re trying to get funding from a drug company instead of from the government, then there might be some conflict of interest or other issues that arise. And so just having private-sector funding of research is not sufficient. The public has to fund scientific research because we want that research to be as unbiased as possible and we get a tremendous economic benefit from it.

It should never be a partisan issue. There are just plenty of good reasons for Republicans as well as Democrats to be supportive of the scientific enterprise.

A version of this article appeared in the November 24, 2021 edition of Education Week as Science Denial in the Classroom: What Causes It? How Should Teachers Respond?

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