In these strange times we all have a lot to frighten us, and one of the things that alarms me is the war on science. As an educator, I’m particularly worried about how we have gone so wrong in the teaching of science. Why do so many people exhibit ignorance about what science is?
Rabid partisanship may be the motivation for leaders to attack science as if it’s a conspiracy theory. But many otherwise well-meaning people have no understanding of science at all. Why have we failed to teach the fundamentals—and I don’t mean memorization of the periodic table?
The potential consequences for science denial are horrendous. In world history what made the Dark Ages and the Medieval world frightening was a dependence on magical thinking and a rejection of observable facts even within the limited knowledge system of the times. Plagues decimated civilizations. It wasn’t until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Age of Enlightenment, that human beings gained partial, albeit inadequate control over pandemics.
Enlightenment means seeing things more clearly than before, even though human beings will never have perfect vision. The Age of Enlightenment is also called the Age of Science because it was defined by the ideas of Descartes and Newton, who brought to the forefront the importance of using reason and relying on evidence.
As a teacher—and I’m not a scientist but an English professor—I enjoy helping students explore the symbolism in magical literary realms. I’m all for wonder and enchantment in poetry, novels, and plays. I’m also an advocate for the awe and faith inspired by the world’s great religions. Science can evoke its own kind of wonder in remarkable observations of the universe, but it’s a profound misunderstanding to think that what is seen in a telescope merits a sense of certainty. People talk about “not believing in science” without recognizing that science is not a belief system. Religion requires faith; science requires doubt.
The wonderful thing about science is that even as you continue to question everything you see, you can make use of what you tentatively know. Science focuses on the observable world. Religion transcends that world but should not prevent people from using science to live a better life in the here and now.
Science does not posit immutable facts once and for all. In fact, it’s the opposite. Science is based on careful observations and on examining those observations. The scientific method, whose father is Galileo (more about him later), involves forming hypotheses based on observations and then on testing those hypotheses. We say that science is iterative—meaning that you see something; you test it; you affirm it–or reject it. If you affirm it, you use it. If you reject it, you start again with a better hypothesis.
A current example: In February 2020, when Dr. Anthony Fauci first said that it was not a good idea for the general public to purchase and wear medical masks to protect themselves from COVID-19, he was basing his recommendation on what was known at the time—in February 2020. In April 2020, when he urged everyone to wear face-coverings (not medical masks by the way) to stop the spread of the disease, he was basing his recommendation on innumerable tests and re-tests on how to prevent infection from a highly contagious virus. He and other scientists observed droplets from coughing, sneezing, laughing, and talking. In repeated studies, contagion went way down when people covered their noses and mouths.
Is that the last word? The research continues, and scientists will publish new recommendations based on further exploration. In the meantime, it’s smart to use the current conclusions to guide daily behavior. For now, wear the damn mask. That’s the way science works.
Scientific recommendations are frequently uncomfortable. People would rather not wear face masks. Sometimes scientific discovery can lead to more than discomfort. Science can sometimes rock the world as we know it.
Let’s return to our friend Galileo (1564-1642)—born before the Enlightenment. Some might say too soon. Or maybe he was born at exactly the right time to lead later generations to the Age of Science. After reading the work of Copernicus (1473-1543), Galileo made his own observations to confirm Copernicus’ hypothesis that the sun, rather than the earth, was the center of the universe. In fact, the earth seemed to revolve around the sun, rather than the other way around.
Wow! How could that be? Stories in the Bible indicated that the earth was the focal point of everything. Galileo continued his observations, developing new hypotheses, subjecting this heliocentric theory to the most rigorous skepticism. While he had faith in the moral teachings of the Bible, he did not see that text as a work of science because it’s not.
Like too many people today the perpetrators of the Inquisition did not at all understand science or the scientific method. Galileo had a choice. Recant—deny the careful observations of science—or burn at the stake. He chose denial of all he had discovered. He survived and spent the remainder of his life under house arrest.
You can understand why Galileo’s fate worries me today. In a healthy society science is understood for what it is—and what it is not. Scientific discoveries flourish. Scientists are ever ready to reject earlier hypotheses for those that stand the test of rigorous experimentation.
Believing in science is not the issue. We must use science as it applies to the future of planet earth (as it revolves around the sun) and most immediately to the global pandemic. Ignorance is the enemy. In the short run, we must do everything we can in the media and on blog posts to clarify the essential role of science in decision making. In the longer run, I call on the educational community, quickly and effectively, to rethink the science curriculum, grade school through grad school. It’s essential for every citizen to be prepared to reject magical thinking and to resist the false claims of one-time reality TV hosts. Let’s construct a new Age of Enlightenment and prevent the terrors of the Dark Ages from coming again.