Teaching { skepticism }: Not All Scientific Studies Are Created Equal…*

There are many “21st century mindsets” that have gained traction in the education sphere. We want to instill in our students a as growth mindset, so that they believe their brains are muscles and through effort they can improve. We want to instill innovative mindsets, cultivating creative students who can synthesize information into novel ideas. However, one type of mindset that I think deserves a bit more press is the skeptical mindset.

I’m particularly interested in scientific skepticism, or the epistemological position in which one questions the veracity of claims unless they can be empirically tested. A student with a skeptical mindset should be taught to question what she is told and know how to evaluate that information. For example, if hears a “truth”, such as “Coffee can cure cancer!” – a headline that wouldn’t be all that unlikely in today’s sensational news – she would immediately ask herself “how do we know this is true? what information do I have to support this claim?”

Every day we are bombarded with headlines claiming that scientists have found a “new cure for aging” or “the banana diet that really works!”. Sometimes there isn’t even a pretend “scientist” backing up this claim. One role that our education system should fill is to teach students how to evaluate these claims. In order to do this, we need to teach the scientific method. The scientific method is a way to answer scientific questions. It involves experiments, variables, hypotheses and knowing how these fit together in a well-designed study.

A good scientific study supports a causal (A causes B) or correlational (A and B are related to one another, but I’m not sure what causes what) relationship between two things, with very few alternative explanations for your findings. While I took AP Science courses for 3 years of high school, I only really learned about science as a method in my first year of college, thanks to the phenomenal Scientific Inquiry core requirement at Colgate University. Recently, I took a Research Methods course in graduate school where many of my peers learned the entirety of this method for the first time. This is wildly problematic. Without a real understanding of science, it is very hard to use a skeptical mindset. If third year PhD students who are already conducting research have not been well versed in the method of science, how can we expect our high school students to be prepared to understand truth in a world full of misinformation and hyperbolic news broadcasts?

We can’t. Which is why science needs to be so much more than content about protons and rock formations. It needs to be focused on the method of evaluating claims and designing empirical studies.

Suzuki quote

 

And this is why this TED Ed lesson – Not all Scientific Studies are Created Equal – caught my eye. It is a great starting point for a conversation about using science to evaluate the veracity of claims.

A big buzz of 21st century education is teaching kids to “know how” rather than “know what.” This is somewhat identical to the “teach a man to fish” proverb. I propose we teach our students to fish. Let me know what you think.

 

 

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