Teaching

I often hear that the non-major courses I teach are challenging. Good! Here are some thoughts that may prompt you to agree with me why this is so necessary.

In 2012, the National Science Foundation conducted a survey of 2,200 people in the United States as part of their “Science and Engineering Indicators” program, where the subjects were asked general questions that pertain to science and engineering. The results were presented at the Annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago in 2014. They are quite worrying, indicative of the times we live in, where information (as well as disinformation) abounds, especially on the internet and social media, while the audience lacks the ability to critically evaluate its validity. In particular, the survey identified that more than a quarter of those surveyed (26%) believes that the Sun revolves around Earth, just over half (51%) understand that antibiotics are ineffective against viruses, less than half (48%) realize that humans developed from earlier species of animals, and only a good third of people (39%) agrees that the Universe started with the Big Bang. Distinguishing science and pseudo-science is also a notable problem: 42% of surveyed subjects are convinced that astrology is true science. It is thus no wonder that the theory of evolution is often interpreted as a mere hypothesis, equal in scientific validity to creationism, and that the importance of early childhood vaccinations is undermined by opinionated celebrities who have more “followers” than expert scientists who actually study such causalities.

Villanova University recently instituted a two-semester science requirement as part of the Core curriculum, called the Mendel Science Experience (MSE). These two one-semester courses are the only required science topics for non-science majors, which brings up two points. First, with Villanova being a typical Liberal Education University, there is a disproportionate emphasis on non-science in the Core: in contrast to the 2 required science courses, our students are required to take 16 non-science courses. I am not trying to downplay the importance of broad education provided by the Core, as advocated by the Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP), just to note that Science in Arts and Sciences is under-represented. Second, science professors have only two opportunities, via these two science core courses, to impart the appreciation of science to non-science majors. With these two points taken at face value, we can draw simple conclusions: (1) the worrying results of the NSF survey are really not surprising since they reflect our education system, and (2) we better make certain that the 2-course opportunity we do have to educate non-science majors in science does not go to waste.

I have been teaching two science core courses at Villanova: Life in the Universe and How Old is the Universe. The broad topics of both courses allow for a structured discussion of the scientific method and for providing clues, experiments, observations, scientific discourse and publications that ultimately lead to scientific theories. This way the students learn to appreciate just how much work goes into a scientific theory; the amount of rigor and skepticism, but also the importance of keeping an open mind; and why the word theory in popular culture (a synomim for a hypothesis) is a complete misnomer for the scientific theory. Having taught these classes for several years now, I started to notice commonalities in our students' views before they take them. Science for non-science majors is considered “black voodoo magic”, something they are plagued with since “their brains are clearly wired differently”, and in the worst of cases, a conspiracy by scientists to “deceive and exploit to get funding”. It is tempting to trace this outrageous view of science to our pre-college education system, to polarized politics, to popular culture where scientists are portrayed as sociopathic nerds, but ultimately the responsibility is on us, educators, to do what we can to help remedy the situation.

The more I think about the problems identified by the NSF, augmented with my own experiences in the classroom, the more it becomes obvious that the level of broad scientific literacy has to take precedence over narrowly specialized fields. Hence, both MSE courses that I teach will have one point in common: broadness. To justify this decision, let me start by evaluating what forms an opinion. We hear all-too-often that people consider opinions to be infallible, that “Well, that is my opinion” precludes the statement to be false. Granted, opinions are inherently personal (such as “my favorite food is Steak Tartar” or “SCUBA diving is the best hobby”), but when used to convey information that can be falsified (such as “vaccines cause autism” or “there is no global warming”), they are no longer opinions: they are misconceptions, and they are wrong. Opinion on a fact is irrelevant: it will not change the fact. Of course, even facts can be falsified – that is precisely what makes them facts. And if they are falsified, they are no longer facts. Opinions on them remain irrelevant.

In place of opinions, decoding falsifiable information relies on hypotheses. One can technically call them opinions, provided that they are informed, i.e. that they are based on an extensive study of the background material. When the subject at hand is unresolved (such as “what happened before the Big Bang?”), or cannot be currently resolved (such as “is there life elsewhere in the Universe?”), then informed opinions might prove meritorious – based on intuition, prior knowledge or logic, we can draw inferences on the likeliest answer, for as long as it is falsifiable. Thus, it can be (and often is) wrong.

Our modern culture is filled with clashes of opinions, especially in the polarizing politics. When the clash is heated and extended, we call it a controversy. Some controversies lend themselves to opinions (i.e. “should euthanasia be legal?”), while others do not (i.e. “is sexual orientation determined at birth?”). From the scientific point of view we should focus only on the latter, where extensive scientific evidence makes answers to these questions falsifiable. Other topics and questions under consideration may include: the safety and impact of genetically modified foods, the availability of sustainable alternative energy sources, is human activity a substantial cause of global warming, is immunization harmful, should marijuana be a medical option, is obesity a disease, is there life elsewhere in the Universe, is vegan/vegetarian diet an adequate replacement for carnivorous diets, are astrology, numerology, divination and other similar practices scientific, is creationism a viable alternative to evolution, and similar. These topics are all highly relevant, and tend to polarize the discussions. The goal of MSE courses I teach is to eliminate opinions and to introduce facts, in an effort to dispel misconceptions. The students attain sufficient scientific vocabulary and appreciation of the scientific method, learn to critically review the literature and differentiate between credible and non-scientific (sensational) sources, and – ultimately – to become a true intellectual voice of reason in our society.