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Politicization of science challenges teaching methods

One of the very first things we are trained to do as educators is to try to keep anything that can be construed as biased information, propaganda, or false information away from the students. This policy doesn't seem so hard at first, but it really is. After all, the real world is filled with politicized science and the media flaunts it. How can an educator remain unbiased against that background?

We can't if we want to educate fully and prepare our charges for the world, as is expected of us. I often find it's a struggle to maintain that delicate balance between capturing and holding the students interest, and losing it when we dismiss any questions that might lead to a biased answer.

However, science and politics are intertwined, and in turn affects teaching policies that impress us to stay neutral in teaching. It is a sad fact that politicians use whatever they wish to further their agendas, all the while they are giving science a bad name. It also means the students aren't getting all the facts to get to the truth of the story.

This has become abundantly clear to me while teaching my class on science literacy, which the student body is mainly adults with their own political influences and biases. This often times happens in the form of a disagreement that breaks out amongst the students who spout off one piece of news or another, then challenged by another student that a similar story with a different twist.

Recently, blogger and freelance writer Keith Kloor, wrote a piece reflecting the after affects of the politicization of science. Reading this article made me stop in my tracks and reflect on my own teaching methods. Am I capable of keeping my own biases out of the equation? Sometimes this is easy with basic things, such as explaining the mechanization and history behind a pulley system. Other times, it is more challenging, such as when I'm asked to explain why the NIH has an entire division devoted to studying natural health cures, even though many view alternative medicines as quackery. How do you explain things like that without stepping on some toes and offending people? 

When I teach, whether at a hands-on museum or in front of a class, I have in front of me both current voters and the next wave of voters. It's a stunning responsibility when I stop to think about it. These people will some day vote for representatives that may use an incomplete scientific study to further their agenda, even long after it's been proven incorrect, such as the case for natural gas among environmental lobbyist.

Facts that they are taught at a young age may not stick with them, but critical thinking skills may last a life time. Developed critical thinking skills may help the students to make informed decisions over the course of their lifetime. Thus, I am driven by a need to find a way for others to see through the biases of the reporting journalists on either side of the political divide to the truth of science behind it.

I recently tried out a method inspired by Pugwash debates to deal with the harder questions for older students. This method seems to work well for increasing critical thinking and science literacy beyond biases quite well. These debates work because the adults are more capable of understanding the basics of science already, and analyzing their emotions that drive their biases. I wouldn't completely discount the research and debate method with teens, but younger kids I would definitely think twice. This creates a problem for me, as I see it as part of my job as an educator.

After a few days of deliberation, I decided to tweak my delivery of the scientific method. In my view, the scientific method is a gateway to understanding science, practicing critical thinking skills, and when utilized for analysis, can increase scientific literacy. For this reason, I am planning to hit upon questioning and analyzing the experiments in order to prepare my younger students to think critically no matter which direction life leads them later on.

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