Science the sh*t out of this
This post is part of a new project at the News Co/Lab: an updated version of our Mediactive open online course with a stronger focus on media literacy in science and health. We’re building on the core concepts, principles and tactics to help people understand and participate in a complex and often confusing arena that has been — and will continue to be — front and center in our lives.
“The scientific mind does not so much provide the right answers as ask the right questions.”
— Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss
Recalling one of the best moments in the film “The Martian” — an astronaut, stranded on Mars with a limited supply of food, is determined to survive until he can be rescued. He looks into a camera recording a mission log and says, laconically, “In the face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option: I’m gonna have to science the sh*t out of this.”
People around the world have watched, mostly in appreciation, as the global scientific community has done just that since the novel coronavirus raced around the world in 2020, causing the first deadly pandemic in a century. During that time, public appreciation has remained steady. The public appetite for news about science has increased — and, unfortunately, so has misinformation about the disease and how we can best stop it.
The misinformation has a variety of causes, including political ambition and sometimes justified public suspicion of misdeeds by crucial institutions. It also gains traction because the public doesn’t know enough about how science works.
The “scientific method” isn’t an equation like Einstein’s e=mc² or a musical score with precise notes on a staff. But it is vital for everyone to appreciate it, because it underlies why we should have general trust in science even if individual researchers and institutions sometimes make unintentional errors or, worse, betray us.
On its superb “Understanding Science” website, the University of California, Berkeley, Museum of Paleontology explains, “Science is complex and multi-faceted, but the most important characteristics of science are straightforward.” They are:
1. Science focuses exclusively on the natural world, and does not deal with supernatural explanations.
2. Science is a way of learning about what is in the natural world, how the natural world works, and how the natural world got to be the way it is. It is not simply a collection of facts; rather it is a path to understanding.
3. Scientists work in many different ways, but all science relies on testing ideas by figuring out what expectations are generated by an idea and making observations to find out whether those expectations hold true.
4. Accepted scientific ideas are reliable because they have been subjected to rigorous testing, but as new evidence is acquired and new perspectives emerge these ideas can be revised.
Science is a community endeavor. It relies on a system of checks and balances, which helps ensure that science moves in the direction of greater accuracy and understanding. This system is facilitated by diversity within the scientific community, which offers a broad range of perspectives on scientific ideas.
The need for scientific media literacy
One of the key realities of science is that what we know today may well not be — and often isn’t — what we will know tomorrow. This leads to confusion, particularly when science isn’t explained well by people discussing it, notably the media.
Scientific media literacy is crucial, but not nearly widespread. Our schools require students to take lots of science classes in school, and the scientific method is at the center of all of them. But school science classes lack context, and there is virtually no discussion of public understanding of science, how consensus is found and what science organizations set the standards in areas like public health. So when students leave their chemistry class, they often have no idea how to apply what they learned to their lives.
Scientists, moreover, rarely take the time to explain how they do what they do. (In that respect, science is very much like journalism, which needs to become much more transparent about how the news works than it has been in the past.)
Never has it been more important to understand the goals, and the purpose, of science — especially in the context of health, and to filter out misinformation. Since most of us are not scientists, we have to learn to trust people, and organizations, with demonstrated track records of credibility. Trusting the purveyors of misinformation isn’t just risky to one’s knowledge; it’s risky to one’s health.
Science has come through for us in the COVID-19 era, with the development of vaccines that are likely to mitigate what could easily have been a vastly worse catastrophe. But we will be making a huge mistake if we overreact at reports of adverse reactions to vaccinations, because they occur with every vaccine, for instance. That doesn’t make the vaccines unsafe, if they have been tested properly (and all indications are that the coronavirus vaccine testing has been rigorous). It makes them trustworthy, and essential for our protection.
We will be relying on science in our future — computer science, climate science, bioscience, and more — to help solve the existential problems such as global climate change and all-too-likely new pandemics. So understanding it better will be even more important.
What we’re doing about it
The News Co/Lab has made media literacy in science and health a priority in our work. We partnered with Science News on a project to bring more transparency — a key element of helping audiences understand how the news works — to the publication’s journalism processes. Our managing director, Kristy Roschke, has created classroom “modules” to embed media literacy in science curriculum.
Now, with the launch of the refashioned Mediactive course, we hope to help lots of people better assess the quality of science and health information they encounter — and to be more careful in what they share and say about it. We especially hope that if you take the short course (3-6 hours of your time, at your own pace) you’ll gain a greater appreciation for what the great people in science and medicine do for all of us. And we urge you to share that appreciation with your family, friends, and colleagues.
Someday this pandemic will be under control, and we’ll have established a new normal in our lives. We’ll have done it because science worked. In the years ahead, we’ll need science, and the people who do it, more than ever. Getting this right is a job for all of us.