Friday, March 27, 2009

Why there is no such thing as science journalism.

Over at, Nobel winner Carl Wieman’s multi-part essay on what he thinks is wrong with science education has implications for science journalism too. The main focus of the third part is that students are often taught mainly factual knowledge and not ways to organize that knowledge or ways to monitor their thinking (metacognition). According to cognitive scientists all three are important characteristics of experts. We’re teaching science like it’s history but science isn’t a collection of knowledge. It isn’t even a discipline. It’s a method.

Bertrand Russell aptly pointed out that, “as soon as definite knowledge concerning any subject becomes possible, this subject ceases to be called philosophy, and becomes a separate science,” referring to the study of the heavens, now known as astronomy, and the study of the mind, now psychology, as examples. The only thing that changed when these subjects made their transition was our ability to acquire “definite knowledge” which allowed testable predictions and the use of science as a tool.

When we teach facts and not metacognition we are ignoring the very substance of science: it’s not what we know (which can change) but how we know it. Are we really teaching science then or are we teaching the history of science? A semantic issue, maybe, but it blurs lines that are important. If we think science is a collection of knowledge, we’ll teach it like history. If we think it’s a method, we should be teaching more like Wieman is suggesting in his essay by focusing less on facts and more on thinking deeply about a smaller number of topics.

But can science journalism also help in this matter? If science is a method, is there even such as thing as science journalism? Like ‘science’ teachers, ‘science’ journalists are giving their readers factual knowledge about a field – the importance of which it is not my intention to undermine – but not much about the mental infrastructure it takes to look at the world in a scientific way. Reporting on methodology is one way this is addressed but doesn’t teach reader how to ask questions and devise a way to test those questions scientifically. Maybe it’s not up to science journalism to do this but the next question should then be: where else can people learn this type of thinking?

As public’s view of scientific issues becomes more important so does the urgency with which we have to address this deficiency in critical thinking. We aren’t going to create unity over climate change by telling people what to think, but how to interpret the scientific data and understand how it was collected. If there’s no place for people to learn scientific or critical thinking outside schools, is there any recourse, in terms of these issues, beyond hoping for another generation to think more critically than ours? There may not be time…