Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Why We Need “Science Citizens” 
Here are excerpts from a guest essay in Scientific American that is very timely.  Written shortly before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, its message resonates strongly now, given all the misinformation and mistrust of science surrounding COVID-19.  Reprinted with the authors’ permission.  Read the entire piece here. 

A public that doesn’t understand what science is and how it works can’t form useful opinions about public policy. 
More than 11,000 scientists recently urged swifter action on climate change, but polls show that 16 percent of the U.S. public continues to deny that climate change is real, and 63 percent of Americans rarely or never discuss global warming with their peers. A rigorous Danish study recently demonstrated the overwhelming safety of vaccines while documenting recurrent threats from measles and other preventable diseases globally. Yet the “anti-vaxxer” movement remains strong. 
When misunderstanding of science and a willingness to believe scientific misinformation affects not only individual welfare, but also key government policies that affect everyone, a new systemic educational approach is needed. We need to do a better job of teaching everyone to be “science citizens.” 
Science citizens should be able to apply scientific reasoning and critical thinking to inform their personal decisions, and to navigate the frenzy of modern news cycles. They should be equipped to use and analyze scientific information to make informed choices at the ballot box and to participate effectively in government decisions about environmental policy, health care and a wide range of other issues. Science citizens should also have an innate understanding of and trust in the institution of science. We do not mean that citizens should blindly believe anything labeled as science. Rather, they should understand that science is a rational and evidence-based schema for understanding the world, and that scientific institutions hold their members to rigorous standards of care and honesty in their work.  
To educate a population of science citizens, science education must improve at all levels. Although the recent focus on STEM education demonstrates that the American education system is working toward improved science literacy, we miss the mark by targeting only students destined for careers in science and education. Science education should foster and encourage critical thinking skills in all students, starting at an early age. “Science citizen” curricula would prioritize the application of scientific thinking to “real-world” scenarios in lieu of rote memorization, and emphasize experimental design, hands-on experience with rigorous data analysis, critical thinking and an understanding of scientific ethics. 
Given past failures in science education, however, efforts should not be limited to current schoolchildren and future generations. We also need to develop and improve continuing education initiatives for non–school-aged citizens and utilize public campaigns to improve widespread science literacy. Particularly given the disproportionate impacts of climate change and other environmental degradation, efforts to create science citizens should also prioritize programming in underprivileged and highly impacted communities. We should offer science education opportunities for all citizens, regardless of circumstance. 
And science is too important to be left to scientists alone. Just as we need to reinvigorate civic education to help restore democratic governance, we need to ensure that everyone receives sufficient training in scientific reasoning and analysis to participate effectively in the increasing array of important societal decisions involving science. A population of science citizens is one that can thrive, both communally and individually, through evidence-driven and value-inclusive progress. 

Robert W. Adler is a Distinguished Professor and former dean at the University of Utah, S.J. Quinney College of Law. He specializes in environmental law and has written extensively about the intersection of law, science and policy. 
Sierra Adler is a writer with a master's in science communication from the University of Otago in New Zealand. Her work focuses on public perception of science, the use of SciArt for science communication, and scientifically informed community-based decision-making practices. 
Robert and Sierra are a dynamic father-daughter duo. 

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