Bridging the Gap Between the Social and Physical Sciences to Promote Effective Science Communication
KOLSON SCHLOSSER (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an assistant professor of instruction in the Department of Geography, Urban Studies and Environmental Studies at Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
If there's anything that unites educators across the disciplines, it's the recognition that the emerging "post-truth" or "alternative-fact" nonsense is dangerous, and that the university is a space in which it should be resisted. I teach in the science and technology block of the general education program at a large, public, urban university in the Northeast. My original training in cultural geography was of the postmodern ilk now frequently vilified as responsible for "alternative facts." I distanced myself from the relativist versions of postmodernism some years ago because it became clear to me how easily they can be misappropriated. I also believe that much of the "post-truth" chatter is based on precisely such a misappropriation. By clearing up some of the confusion, we can collectively teach against this alternative fact madness. As an example of this, I discuss how I've borrowed from a qualitative research technique called Q method to invite students to think critically about which sources of information on climate change they consider trustworthy and why.
Postmodernism includes a broad suite of arguments that, while varied, mostly question the generalizability of knowledge, instead preferring an understanding of knowledge as situational and perspective-based. This often has led to an understanding of postmodernism as "squishy" philosophy in contrast to "hard" science. But rather than juxtaposing it to science, we might reduce it to something like this:
We swim in a vast sea of facts, as well as potential facts not yet discovered or verified. But from this vast sea, only a few drops come into our awareness, and the selection and circulation of such is a function of social and class power, so while facts are facts and science should be evidence-based, how we talk about it, mobilize it, and inform policy with it will always be political.
Postmodernism, as I came to learn, takes as its object of critique those forms of social power which mobilize selected facts for particular purposes. This is not to suggest that all facts are simultaneously not-facts or that facts can be made up without evidence whenever one wants, but what we're currently seeing is a blatant politicization of science and the factual world in the interest of the elite — exactly what all those "squishy" postmoderns warned us of!
So what does this have to do with how science is taught? Certainly facts matter, and the scientific process should remain the bedrock of science education. But we might also recognize the advice of Jess Zimmerman (2017) that fighting lies with facts only further circulates the lies, and the lies are what people tend to remember. To be sure, her argument pertains to public and media discourse, and the norms of the classroom are necessarily different. We should teach facts in the classroom. But her case for a strategy based on emotion, while perhaps heretical to some scientists, still points to a basic truism: for many of our students the final check on validity isn't truth, but rather how a statement makes them feel. Should the strategy be to compartmentalize their emotion, or bring it to the surface, examine it, and understand it as a function of their social position vis-à-vis The Truth? While I don't discuss questions of the postmodern directly with students, I do believe that thorough science instruction can and perhaps should be complemented by discussion about the social context of the climate change "debate" and how science becomes politicized. Effective science communication is as much about the communication as it is the science (Hanrahan, 2017). Perhaps rather than disproving lies, we can ask our students to think about whose interest these lies serve (Huber, 2017). Climate deniers get their charge from distrust of "big science" they associate with "big government." As educators, we should resist the temptation to think of facts as life-changing gifts. Teaching involves an inherent power relationship, and it's possible that a constant struggle to stamp out lies with facts reifies that relationship.
If science educators are to turn our formidable critical thinking lenses on not just facts but the manner in which they're communicated, we should certainly craft class activities to explore and develop science information literacy. Beginning in the spring 2017 semester, I began to borrow from Q method, a research technique used in the social and behavioral sciences, to design in-class information literacy activities, partly to explore what sources students found trustworthy, but mostly to position students to explore why they believe in those sources. Danielson et al. (2012, p. 102) define Q method as "a procedure by which a series of individuals each represent their viewpoint by ranking a set of statements (typically by arranging small cards in a quasinormal distribution)." In part, Q method attempts to capture something that surveys, for instance, lack — the fact that people evaluate claims in context, relative to other claims, not in a vacuum. A survey question asking a respondent to rank their trust in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on a scale from 1 to 5 possibly invites the respondent to assume all other things are equal. But we can't make that assumption, at least not if the purpose is to ask students to think about why they're more likely to trust some sources over others.
When used in an actual social or behavior research setting, the statements to be ranked would typically be drawn from a larger "concourse," developed via thorough discussion about the topic with research subjects (Webler et al., 2007). In this case, however, I created the set of statements myself in order to save class time (and because it is a class activity, not research per se). In class I asked all students to rank the following sources of climate science information from what they consider to be the most trustworthy to the least trustworthy (in an actual research project it would be advised to use at least twice as many):
- United States Department of Defense (DoD)
- Bill Nye the Science Guy
- Donald Trump's Twitter account
- A college-level Earth science textbook
- The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
- Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
- National Geographic magazine
- The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Students were then asked to discuss their list with a neighbor before discussing the process as a class. Students were only allowed to ask for points of clarification (who is Bill Nye? Why would the DoD have anything to say about climate change?) during this discussion. Lastly, I asked students to re-do rankings (called Q-sorts) based on the discussion and note why they made any changes they did.
Let's remember — the purpose of this is not to generalize knowledge, but to get students to reflect on what they consider when they interpret information as trustworthy or "official." Thankfully Trump's Twitter account was dead last for 26 out of 27 students (the exception was an international student who ranked Bill Nye and John Oliver lower). But the most relevant information is not what they ranked where, but why they made changes if they did or why they had disagreements with peers. For example, I was surprised (and a bit dismayed) that 10 students ranked National Geographic ahead of a college Earth science textbook, until it was explained that as students they know textbooks become outdated, but a periodical is perceived as more up-to-date. The EPA varied greatly, depending on whether students equated the EPA with Scott Pruitt (up for confirmation at the time this exercise was done), considered the EPA to be a larger entity than Pruitt himself, or had any idea who Pruitt is. One student moved the EPA up specifically because of its "rogue Twitter" account. Similarly, students who didn't initially rank the IPCC highly reported that they either didn't know it was staffed by real scientists or didn't know that it was independent of the Trump administration (despite the fact that the IPCC was covered in previous lessons).
A more rigorous study done for the sake of research would be followed by a statistical analysis. The purpose of this exercise is for students to reflect on the variables that influence, consciously or not, what they consider trustworthy or not. In future iterations of this exercise I plan to add a short reflective essay in which they describe their reasoning. The fact that a student moved Bill Nye up his list because a neighbor convinced him how super smart Bill Nye is, for example, is not trivial; it's in fact quite the point. Even before this exercise I had always perceived that students often lack a thorough grasp of which aspects of our lives are, or are not, controlled by the government, and not only did this exercise support that suspicion, it opened a space for conversation about it. Facts are facts, but the way we share them, rank their importance, convert them to policy, etc., is always a social act and therefore political. This is what the postmodern critique always considered inseparable from the practice of science itself. If we're to teach science effectively in an era where science is increasingly politicized (like it or not), we need to seriously consider taking that politicization on directly in the classroom. I chose to do this by borrowing from Q method, but the basic learning goal can cut across teaching techniques: that students focus their analytical lens not only on the external world, but also on their own subjective decision-making.
Adhikari, G., 2017 Jan 27, Alternative facts and true lies: The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gautam-adhikari/alternative-facts--true-l_b_14440900.html
Danielson, S., Tuler, S., Santos, L., Webler, T. and Chess, C., 2012, Three tools for evaluating participation: focus groups, Q method and surveys: Environmental Practice, v. 14(2), p. 101-109.
Hanrahan, J., 2017, Bridging the gap: teaching informal climate change communication: In the Trenches, v. 7(1), p. 2-4.
Huber, M., 2017 Jan 25, The politics of truth/facts: Medium, https://medium.com/@Matthuber78/the-politics-of-truth-facts-30a218f67cdd#.434c9ay41
McKnight, P., 2017 Jan 28, Trump as postmodernist: truth no longer bound by facts: The Globe and Mail, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/trump-as-postmodernist-truth-no-longer-boundby-facts/article33796581/
Webler, T., Danielson, S. and Tuler, S., 2007, Guidance on the Use of Q Method for Evaluation of Public Involvement Programs at Contaminated Sites: Social and Environmental Research Institute, 43 p., http://www.seri-us.org/sites/default/files/QMethodGuidanceSuperfund.pdf