Dr. Jonathan Osborne, Professor Emeritus of Science Education at Stanford University, advocates for the “professionalism and specialization of experts in the post-truth era.” Faced with individualistic discourses, in which access to knowledge has led some people to believe they are strangers to others, the professor warns that we still need an infinite number of professionals versed in their subjects. Once head of the think tank responsible for developing the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s framework for assessing the scientific knowledge of students in more than 100 countries, Osborne has been a teacher for decades.
After graduating in Physics, he went on to teach, at the secondary and undergraduate levels, at the King’s College London In the UK his research focuses on finding the best methodology for teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The professor sat down with EL PAÍS at the National Museum of Science and Technology in Madrid to share his thoughts on science education in today’s environment.
a question. What role does science play in today’s society?
Answer. We depend cognitively on the skills of scientists, just as we depend on plumbers and doctors. Our scientific understanding of the world is one of humanity’s greatest intellectual achievements. I wish more people could explain why this is. For example, a person can briefly explain why Shakespeare or Cervantes are great writers…but is it easier to do that when talking about scientists? This is a problem because it means that we fail to communicate the achievements of leaders in this field.
s. What is lacking in science education in schools?
a. I think there is a big problem with teaching science. I wrote a report on it a long time ago: The average student goes to a 50-minute class, learns a science fact, and comes back a week later and learns another. What young people learn are the building blocks of scientific knowledge…but they are not able to see the big picture at all. The only people who can see inside the building are those who go on to study and become scientists.
Science education starts in the wrong place. Education must begin from the point of view of questions about the world … However, most textbooks tell you the facts, but not what to answer.
s. Do you think the popularization of scientific knowledge—for example, through individuals posting content on social media—was positive?
a. Yes! Teaching science in schools should take into account the ‘wow’ factor. Think about the idea that you’ve been around for 70 to 90 years and that you’re one of the billions of people on Earth, on this little planet that orbits the sun…that’s amazing. Traditional education often fails when it comes to conveying a sense of wonder in science.
s. What can we do to combat false beliefs that contradict science? Like, for example, the idea that climate change isn’t real, the belief that the Earth is flat, or the perception that all vaccines are harmful?
a. You shouldn’t tell anyone that it’s not true. Nobody likes to hear “You’re wrong.” You have to interact, listen to their reasoning and then give them information that contradicts them, because they are picky about their data. It takes a lot of patience. The first thing you need to do – and it is very basic in education – is to show intellectual humility. This is a much stronger position from which to approach iconoclasm. Knowing the correct answer is not enough: you must be able to explain why the incorrect answer is wrong. Also, from a political point of view – even if you find it offensive – you have to know the arguments of the other side. There must be a dialogue. This is a long term project.
s. In science, by definition, there is always a chance that fellow scientists will prove you wrong. Does that make you humble?
a. Sure, but science is also very competitive. There is pressure to grow in your career, to publish, and to win grants. As a scientist, you want to be proven right and you want your discoveries to be important. This is just human nature.
Fortunately, the scientific community invented the peer review model, which, while not perfect, helps ensure that everything that gets published has some relevance. Community and consensus is part of the process.
s. How do you convey uncertainty, when fact is partial or probabilistic?
a. We give students complex information — messy data — so they can understand just how tenuous reality is. We explain the methodology for how to reach conventions, detect trends, isolate outliers, and eliminate noise when creating a dataset. Thus, we show that it is necessary to explore the nature of uncertainty, rather than simply providing an answer. We must invite students to theorize: Why should we trust science? Should we believe the data we have access to? This serves to teach them that they should always check their sources.
s. How can we get more people to trust scientists?
a. First of all, you have to evaluate the world’s experience. Who claims that this is a recognized professional? Verify that they are active and working in a known location, such as a university or research centre. We should also know if the scientist speaking is in fact knowledgeable in his field – an immunologist is not an expert in agriculture. This is why the term “scientist” as a generic label creates problems: it is a highly specialized profession.
s. Surveys show a clear decline in the interest people show in science as they get older.
a. It’s a very universal truth. People think that we live in a scientific and technological society, but this is not true: we live in a human society. People love to interact with others, to hear what they are doing and to see how they are behaving. Science doesn’t often do this.
Another reason for declining interest over time is that if you present science as a set of hard, proven facts about which one can have no influence or opinion, the person will quickly lose interest. The French physiologist Claude Bernard, who lived in the 19th century, said that science is “a great and wonderful hall, which can only be reached by passing through a long and dreadful kitchen.” If you don’t offer students something impressive – if you don’t offer them exclamations and connections – why should they care?
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