The Value of STEM Education in an AltFact World: At its very core the scientific method is a market economy, where the currency is truth.
In his book, The Death of Expertise published earlier this year, US Naval War College Professor Tom Nichols laments, “Americans no longer distinguish the phrase ‘you’re wrong’ from the phrase ‘you’re stupid.’ To disagree is to disrespect. To correct is to insult. And to refuse to acknowledge all view as worthy of consideration, no matter how fantastic or inane they are, is to be closed minded.”
For all of the bluster about political correctness, free speech, SJW snowflakes, etc…neither side of the political spectrum has gotten any better hearing the words, “you’re wrong.” In fact, our communication bubbles have become so insular that we rarely take the opportunity to challenge the veracity of that which we are presented. Much has been made about this post-factual world, and post-truth politics. This worldview is one framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored.
Psychologists are discovering how we, as humans, come to access, construct and evaluate beliefs. Most of us assume that our sets of beliefs and fundamental knowledge of the world comes to us as a set of constructs grounded in facts. We assemble these facts into structures upon which we build our beliefs. Psychologists are finding something different. Rather than building our beliefs assembled around a set of facts about our world, most of us tend to build our facts around a set of beliefs.
This is not a new concept. Researchers have studied the phenomena of confirmation bias for sometime. Confirmation bias is often defined as “the tendency to seek out information that supports and seemingly validates one’s own viewpoint” One famous example is the “lunar effect.” There are numerous studies that center on emergency room visits correlated with full moon nights. Systematic reviews of this research consistently demonstrate that there is simply no evidence for that the full moon causes an increase in emergency room visits. Why, then, do people continue to believe this? Data show that belief in the lunar effect remains at about 40-45%, even among those highly educated. The answer is simply, confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is found when we notice, accept, and remember information that confirms beliefs we already have, while ignoring, forgetting, or explaining away contradictory data. Belief in a lunar effect, therefore, feeds on itself. Cue the old saw, “the plural of anecdote is not ‘data”
There is probably not a single more visible example of confirmation bias in today’s news than in politics. In a desperate attempt to validate everything about our preferred candidate and discredit all about our opponent’s candidacy, we gather facts that align with our beliefs and tend to discredit the facts that are counter-productive to those thoughts. This has gotten to be so prolific that this year we’ve begun to hear about living in a post-factual world.
So what does this have to do with a STEM based education? Fundamental to a STEM-based education is deep understanding of the scientific method. The scientific method demands that one must suspend belief until data can show that that belief can be embraced.
To be sure, this doesn’t mean that beliefs not supported by fact have no use. Actually, the opposite is true. Those are called hypotheses are as important to the scientific process as the facts themselves. But central to the scientific process is that our beliefs are wrapped around the facts. And what happens when the opposite happens? Sometimes disaster. The space shuttle Challenger for one. In that example, the desire to send up the shuttle loaded with the first teacher in space, was so great, beliefs that the colder temperatures the night before the launch would have no effect on the safety on the launch were bended around the facts.
And this is where STEM education becomes incredibly valuable. Much has been written about the doors STEM education opens, the jobs available to STEM college degree holders, the importance to the country’s global competitiveness that STEM education means. But to a lesser extent do we talk about what the scientific process can teach us within this post-factual world.
The entire exercise of science is figuring out what is true. The scientific method requires one to form a hypothesis, test it, get a result. And then one presents this work to a community of peers whose duty it is to attempt to poke holes in those results, to double check the work. STEM education, the scientific method itself, teaches critical thinking. And, most importantly, STEM education teaches one that the words, “you’re wrong” don’t convey disrespect. They don’t communicate intolerance or close mindedness. They don’t shut down a conversation or open up a flood of superficial anonymous insults in the comments section. In science, “you’re wrong” means progress! Even Jules Verne knew this, “Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.”