Saturday, October 06, 2012

Science, Learning and Sustainability

Students and teachers are challenged to make sense of all the claims and counterclaims about our future, especially with respect to issues of sustainability. For example, virtual science based on computer modeling is the basis for most predictions and scenarios about climate change, extreme weather events and biodiversity. But we do not teach modeling as a scientific practice in schools, we teach science in terms of discrete disciplines (physics, biology, chemistry) rather than as the practice of model building. When students are confronted with skeptical scientists who base their skepticism on data and observation rather than models, they are unsure how to evaluate evidence.

A concrete example may assist in making clear the point. All eighteen computer models of ice formations in the Antarctic suggest that ice sheets should be experiencing continued decline.  Each shows a decrease in each month, with the greatest multi-model mean percentage monthly decline of 13.6% in February and the greatest absolute loss of ice in September. The models have very large differences in the rate and extent of loss over 1860 – 2005. However, data collected through satellite observations make clear that sea ice has been expanding , with the September 2012 extent of 19,1702 million square kilometers being amongst the largest extent ever recorded (see here for data). The models are clearly wrong, but it is the model data and their gloomy predictions that gets the press not the optimistic data from real observation.

Similar issues exist between models and data for such things as polar bear extent (with the exception of two specific communities, the polar bear population is actually growing and is very healthy), extreme weather events (no established connection to climate change according to the IPCC’s analysis and other studies) and other issues with environment and sustainability.

What then do we teach students? Students are generally being taught that the Antarctic ice is melting, that polar bears are in decline and that extreme weather events are linked to climate change. They are not being asked to look critically at the difference between different kinds of scientific inquiry and evidence – e.g. between virtual science, experimental science and natural observation.

They are also not generally taught the difference between evidence based policy, such as the war on DDT fought by Rachel Carlson with selective and biased evidence use and the evidence based policy approach, which uses a systematic and inclusive approach to evidence so as to reach a comprehensive understanding of the challenge. Cold hard looks at evidence for Carlson’s claims (see here and also here) suggest that she used a very flawed approach to science. The same can also be said of Lord Sterns’s review of the policy implications of climate change (see here).

We have similar challenges in biology and medicine. Claims are made about homeopathy, for example, which have no scientific basis whatsoever, yet various health systems promote and enable its practice (see here) and some schools and colleges actually teach homeopathy as “an alternative medicine” (sic). Claims are made about new treatments and discoveries which, when looked at critically and scientifically are problematic, as reviews by the Cochrane Collaboration make clear (see here for useful columns by Ben Goldacre describing some of these challenges).

How do we encourage students to look at such claims and to look at skeptical responses to them? How do we teach the basis of scientific inquiry and skeptical analysis in a systematic way so that the educational process is not simply “buying in” to a politically correct narrative, but is actually developing scientific and critical skills?

This is a real challenge for those who are committed to sustainability and development. Unless we fall into the trap of buying into the narrative that the future is one in which we are doomed in ways which are “inevitable” according to science, we need upcoming generations to be able to reason scientifically, understand evidence, be able to be critical of science (especially pseudo-science) and be able to practice the scientific methods. We also need them to see science as informing public policy not determining it and to recognize the difference between campaigning and scientific inquiry – lines which, after the work of Feyerabend (e.g. Against Method, 1975) , have become blurred.

Students need the skills to recognize “bad” science, polemics and campaigning science and the skills to be able to undertake critical scientific inquiry. I am not sure that our current teaching of science is achieving these intentions. A sustainable planet needs schools, colleges and universities to produce scientists that understand not just their discipline, but the philosophy and history of science. Otherwise, progress will be inhibited by bias and polemic.

First published by the Club of Reykjavik - see 

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