By Andy Zucker, Ed.D.

My just-published Science Educator article with Penny Noyce responds to the large and growing problem of scientific misinformation by recommending more and better media literacy education in schools.

“Vaccines cause autism!” “Climate change is a hoax!” “Drain toxins from your body by soaking your feet in this marvelous, proprietary solution!”

Many young people are online almost constantly where such misinformation is rampant. As one review of research concluded, “students—and the lay public—need training in the evaluation of scientific expertise and scientific claims.” While this seems like an obvious suggestion, unfortunately science education standards do not place a high priority on teaching students how to judge claims they encounter, or which sources of information about science are reliable.

Policymakers—from governors to school principals—should call for teaching more and better media literacy skills to science students in elementary and secondary schools. That is one of the recommendations in our new article published in Science Educator, a journal produced by the National Science Education Leadership Association.

The topic of the article is teaching science for citizenship:

“An approach to science education that reaches beyond scientific theories, facts and methods to consider how science interacts with everyday and civic life, including personal, economic, and ethical concerns, has been called a Vision II approach. Benefits of such an approach are likely to include greater student engagement, practice in constructive group discourse, exercise of critical thinking skills, and strengthening of civic skills needed in a democracy.”

We cite more than a dozen studies documenting the benefits of teaching science in a broader context and focusing more purposefully on developing an “informed citizenry that makes fact-based decisions in everyday life.” For example, almost everyone realizes that greater knowledge of the intersection of civics and science is essential to preserve American democracy; even Science magazine published an editorial last year recommending “a new spirit of cooperation between the science and civics education communities.”

In everyday life, decisions involving science are often made by non-scientists, who must consider a variety of perspectives beyond science. As the National Association of Biology Teachers has written in a position statement, excellent biology teachers “follow an integrated approach by incorporating other subjects, technology, society, and ethics.” All science teachers need to follow this advice if schools are going to develop “an informed citizenry that makes fact-based decisions in everyday life.” Teachers need to help students learn to learn about science even after they leave school and have no textbook to guide them.

There are innumerable science-related questions non-scientists need to answer, including politicians, city and town officials, and ordinary citizens. Who decides that COVID vaccines are safe, and how do I know they really are? Whose job was it to protect the public water supply in Flint, Michigan, and could that happen in my town? What are the pros and cons of buying a hybrid versus an electric car; how can I evaluate the advertisers’ claims; what am I willing to pay? Should I let my child play tackle football? Should I go to a tanning parlor before my beach vacation? How much should states and cities pay for clean energy and why, and should I support a particular ballot question about this?

Radical changes in science teaching are not called for. What is needed is a modest, feasible shift in priorities encouraged from the top down. Like adding yeast to bread dough, adding just a bit of instruction about using science in societal and personal contexts would make a big difference in what students learn, including their understanding of why learning science is important to them and to American democracy.

 

Editor’s note:

The full article is a NSELA members-only benefit. Check with your library or other science educators who may have access. You can also send an email to the lead author, Andy Zucker (andyzucker at gmail.com), requesting a copy of the Science Educator article.

 

Andy Zucker, Ed.D., a member of Media Literacy Now’s Board of Directors, has experience in education as a federal program evaluator, researcher, book author, and STEM teacher. He and colleagues recently developed a free one-week unit for grades 6-12 called Resisting Scientific Misinformation, available here.

Share This Story!