Science is a way of knowing
The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) provides resources for science teachers. A new series of lessons deals with the scientific method -- the process of science. The aim is to give students experience in using the scientific method for real-life decision making. The first lesson (see below) deals with helping students overcome misconceptions...
1. MISCONCEPTION: Science is complete, absolute, and unchanging.
2. MISCONCEPTION: Science can answer all questions.
The responses to those misconceptions are 1) as we gather more information, scientific conclusions can change, and 2) there are some things we don't know.
The value to correcting these misconceptions is obvious to anyone who has been living in the U.S. for the last nine months. The coronavirus pandemic has tested the scientific understanding of the American people -- and their leaders -- and found them wanting. The misconception that science is complete, absolute, and unchanging, has, for example, allowed millions of people to believe that wearing masks has no impact on their health and safety. How many times have you heard someone comment something similar to...
"We can't trust Dr. Fauci (or the CDC) because first they said that masks don't work and now they say they do. Which is it? They need to make up their minds."
The concept of changing our behavior based on the accumulation of more information seems foreign to the "anti-maskers," and their denial of the efficacy of facemasks is based on a simple case of believing the misconception that "science doesn't change."
The lessons from the NCSE will, hopefully, boost students' scientific literacy and protect them from establishing erroneous knowledge as their beliefs. As they grow they will understand that scientists who are helping to develop public policy might have to change their minds based on new evidence and additional data.
Science is a Way of Knowing
...the nature of science unit takes a misconception-based approach to teaching and learning. To combat misconceptions, students are given opportunities to examine evidence— for example, an online interactive that shows how face coverings prevent particle dispersion—to answer everyday questions like, Why wear a mask? This not only helps them counter the misconception they may be exposed to—“Masks don’t help prevent COVID-19”—but also equips them with the skills needed to analyze, assess, and, if necessary, debunk future misinformation.
This lesson introduces students to a basic understanding of the scientific process in action.
Additionally, by the end of this lesson, the student will understand that, while an experiment may come to a conclusive end, the process of science is ongoing, continually evolving as new evidence emerges, and will recognize that science cannot answer questions that do not pertain to natural processes.
Backfire: Watching Madness in Real Time
The danger of not understanding that science can change leads to people who are unwilling to accept a change in position when confronted with new information. In fact, the research discussed here indicates that once people make up their minds, the presentation of facts in opposition to their beliefs will only exacerbate their error. Anything that opposes their current belief becomes "fake news."
Fortunately, the article also offers a way around this obstinacy.
What happens when you remove that element of choice and present someone with arguments that run counter to their worldview? In this case, the cognitive process that comes to the fore is Disconfirmation Bias, the flipside of Confirmation Bias. This is where people spend significantly more time and thought actively arguing against opposing arguments.
This was demonstrated when Republicans who believed Saddam Hussein was linked to the 9/11 terrorist attacks were provided with evidence that there was no link between the two, including a direct quote from President George Bush. Only 2% of participants changed their mind (although interestingly, 14% denied that they believed the link in the first place). The vast majority clung to the link between Iraq and 9/11, employing a range of arguments to brush aside the evidence. The most common response was attitude bolstering – bringing supporting facts to mind while ignoring any contrary facts. The process of bringing to the fore supporting facts resulted in strengthening people’s erroneous belief.
If facts cannot dissuade a person from their pre-existing beliefs – and can sometimes make things worse – how can we possibly reduce the effect of misinformation? There are two sources of hope.
Christian Nationalists’ Rejection Of Science Is Exactly What We Don’t Need Right Now
An example of the inability to change ones mind despite new information and facts, is the insistance of some religious leaders (those of the "religious right" or, as this author calls them, "Christian nationalists.") on opening their churches and not following recommended procedures for limiting the spread of the coronavirus.
...the longstanding effort to water down or remove instruction about Darwinian evolution in public school science classes, but that’s far from the only way the Religious Right’s anti-science attitude manifests itself. Many of them also deny climate change and, as we’ve seen during the coronavirus pandemic, growing numbers have signed up with conspiracy theorists who either believe the virus isn’t a real threat or that the country is overreacting to it (despite the U.S. death toll, which has now topped 209,000).
This attitude led many Christian nationalists to insist that their churches should be able to remain open even in the face of public health orders curbing all large gatherings. Many derided recommendations from medical professionals such as wearing masks and maintaining social distance, and some extremist pastors went so far as to simply ignore these orders.
Such reckless behavior threatens all of us. Around the country, several events that took place in houses of worship have been identified as “superspreader” incidents. (Last month, authorities in Maine reported that seven people had died after a couple held a wedding reception and did not follow health guidelines. None of the seven had attended the reception.)