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Fall 2021

Illustration of earth on chalkboard

Illustration by Klaus Kremmerz

So Your Student Believes the Earth Is Flat

Ten ways for teachers to address science denial

Science denial has become rampant and deadly in recent years, threatening individual health, community well-being, and the life of the planet’s environment. As educators, we know that teachers have a significant role in addressing this growing problem. Teachers can mentor the next generation of scientists, and they can also nurture an appreciation for science and instill regard for scientific expertise, regardless of students’ chosen careers. Science can contribute to contemporary problems great and small. Such work is enhanced when members of the public understand and trust the scientific expertise.

Why is it that some individuals reject vaccinations during a pandemic or deny the human role in climate change? As two research psychologists, we have identified key constructs that make all of us susceptible to science denial, doubt, and resistance, detailed in our new book Science Denial: Why It Happens and What to Do About It. We include copious suggestions for how to address these challenges. Here are our top 10 tips for teachers to address science denial with students in their classrooms:

1. First, teach your students to value science. Teach them that science is a systematic and reliable way to pose questions and seek answers about the natural world. Its strength lies in scientists’ collective willingness to trust the evidence from combined results of many tests, an accumulation that builds toward scientific consensus, through peer review of research findings. 

2. Cultivate a scientific attitude. At the heart of scientific thinking is an openness to new evidence and a willingness to change one’s mind in light of new evidence. Educators will also recognize it as a cornerstone of critical thinking, relevant in all fields and highly valued in classrooms. Acknowledge it when you see it expressed in discussions. “I see how you changed your mind when you found out that...”

3. Teach not only what scientists know but how they know. Students are often taught the scientific method as the sole means by which scientists test claims, through controlled studies in labs. This impression makes it difficult to understand how sciences such as astronomy may rely more on observations than experiments. Broaden their awareness of the various fields of sciences and the processes by which scientists know.

4. Address misconceptions about science. In our own research we have found that individuals often assume that unless scientists know something with complete certainty, the findings are dismissed as not trustworthy. For example, although 98% of climate scientists think that climate change is largely caused by human activities, only 57% of the public share that view.

5. Acknowledge emotions as a part of learning, not something to keep at bay. Many students were upset and angry when Pluto was demoted to a dwarf planet. The issue of climate change may prompt anxiety, which needs attention for learning to occur. Consider the range of emotions involved, address negative ones, and foster positive ones.

6. Help students learn to evaluate scientific information they read online. Whether a fourth-grader is investigating if dinosaurs lived at the same time as humans or a high school student is trying to learn more about sex, they are likely to seek information online and are typically ill-equipped to evaluate what they read. Build information literacy skills into every research assignment. Teach algorithmic literacy; students often erroneously believe that the top hits in a search are more reliable and valid, unaware that an unseen, proprietary formula is selecting the results.

7. Offer basic information about how our minds work that helps explain science denial, doubt, and resistance. For example, confirmation bias is a human tendency to seek information that aligns with prior beliefs. Ask students to monitor their own search habits, for example, when seeking information about a topic, and to note when they stop looking and why.

8. Teach students to determine what expertise to value and trust. We each have a bounded understanding of science and need to rely on expertise to make many decisions when the science is beyond our reach. Offer differing sources for their review on a topic of interest and help them adjudicate which are likely to be more reliable. Discuss where else they get information and how they weigh competing ideas.

9. Foster healthy skepticism. Such skepticism (not doubt or resistance) is a critical part of both the scientific process and consumer awareness. Help students become wary of clickbait headlines (“chocolate cures cancer!”) and individual studies yet to be corroborated. They can learn to be especially suspicious of campaigns designed to foster doubt in scientific findings, funded by vested interests.

10. Be aware of your broad and lasting impact as a teacher. Scientific thinking is critical for all students, not just those who want to become scientists. Help all students, regardless of their career paths, learn to think scientifically and appreciate the scientific expertise. With your help they can become citizens who can contribute to public dialogue from an informed, evidence-based stance and make decisions about their own health and wellbeing for years to come. 

Barbara Hofer, Ed.M.'77, is a professor emerita of psychology at Middlebury College. Gale Sinatra is a professor of education at the University of Southern California.