Even though humans are the ones doing science, and our ability to perceive things – especially our memories – are distorted and flawed, science could be great because it helps us at least try to overcome our flaws in pursuit of a more in-depth understanding. You have to try to disprove your own potentially biased hypothesis.
What is done with the resulting knowledge is another issue.
My ES students have to respond to a discussion prompt (that I didn’t write) where they have to pick a current environmental issue and examine it from scientific, economic, and political perspectives. While I have had a few really good responses, most students in the past 4 years of teaching more-or-less the same course, are typically previously mis-informed about what science is or is not. Most tend to ignore the scientific perspective and focus on the economic and political ones. It is pretty obvious that they have not done the assigned reading in the textbook either, which states clearly that science is not a body of facts and knowledge but it is the dynamic process of systematically evaluating the natural world. I think that science can be a difficult concept for some people to grasp. It is also likely the fault of years of bad science teaching.
I think it is interesting to see their comments on science. Most, but not all, tend to mis-use the word. I have to figure out the best way to help and guide them towards a better and more clear understanding.
“I think science can be used to help prevent natural disasters. The air quality has been proven to make the difference in areas that suffer form natural disasters so I think that science can help aid in how people live their everyday lives, to improve air quality thus preventing these diasters.”
“Scientifically the storms are becoming larger and more dangerous…Scientifically I don’t know if humans have lead to some of the changes.”
“The scientific perspective states when there is an earthquake, it triggers a tsunami…The science perspective wins out because the information on the earthquake and tsunami are based on raw facts that have been proven. The science perspective helps you to understand why the earthquake and tsunami happened in the first place.”
“Scientifically-Hurricane Katrina’s high and strong winds(125 mph) placed the hurricane in category 3 on the Saffir-Simpson scale and 920 mb minimum central pressure. This hurricane not only affected New Orleans but a significant amount of damage amongst the central Gulf Coast states.”
“The science perspective wins out because the information on the earthquake and tsunami are based on raw facts that have been proven. The science perspective helps you to understand why the earthquake and tsunami happened in the first place.”
“The scientific answer is to not build on the barrier islands.”
“Scientifically, I am understanding that there are studies that are still trying to tie Sandy and other hurricanes, to global warming, and the effects of such.”
“The science, which has points for both sides depending on the research, will be used to form the battle lines for the argument. There are valid opinions for both sides. The science will always point out the positive and negative so that we can choose which direction to go. Unfortunately, science is used for political and economical gain for each side. It is the norm to take the science and use it for gaining the upper hand on the other two areas.”
(This is actually not such an inaccurate observation. Politicians notoriously latch on to the ambiguity and lack-of-consensus/contradictions from one research study to the next. Some research groups, unfortunately, are politically swayed. But it still likely demonstrates a misunderstanding of what the scientific process is and doesn’t address the assignment’s objectives to examine an issue from the scientific perspective. It’s not only the students’ fault, though. I think that the assignment’s wording is flawed in suggesting that science even has a ‘”perspective”, and I will likely change this wording in future courses. This is the first time I am using this prompt with the new course objectives, so I just went with the prompts as they were originally written.)
“Scientifically, this was one of the worst storms to hit the east coast.”
“Scientifically I would have to say that much of it could be correlated with global warming. Especially factoring all of the other devastations that have happened just in my 23 years of life. “
“Scientifically, this storm shows the power and destruction that a category 2 storm can have.The coast line takes the biggest hit with erosion, but we also have to think of all the standing water that is left behind, which is a breading ground for bacteria, viruses, and mosquitos (which in themselves carry disease).”
Others get confused between science and technology.
“Scientifically, we have already genetically altered corn and cotton. Genetically altering salmon would be a step for more genetically engineered animals. Everyone is awaiting to see what is going to happen through salmon before trying to get the FDA to approve other genetically modified animals.”
In my comments to the students, I try to emphasize, with examples, what science is and isn’t. It’s not memorizing facts from a textbook. It’s not a weather station or genetically-modified food. It’s the process used to collect information about all of these things. The facts in the textbook were obtained through scientific studies. The weather station is a measuring tool that could be used to contribute data towards a scientific study. Genetically-modified foods were obtained as a results of scientific studies.
Science is the scientific method. Just like the science fair projects everyone has to do in middle school and high school. Science is great because we can attempt to eliminate biases in the way we make observations.