Last week was a newsworthy week — at least for this high school English teacher.
In a story out of Hartford last Wednesday, the state Board of Education officially eliminated the requirement that standardized test scores be tied to teacher evaluations. The move, while controversial, was a common-sense decision that recognizes the many problems created by evaluations based on standardized tests. A newsworthy development, indeed, for anyone interested in education.
Even so, a more newsworthy event for me occurred on Tuesday when Southern Methodist University professor Stephen Sekula visited English and science classes at his alma mater and my workplace, Haddam-Killingworth High School. Speaking to my students in Media Literacy, Sekula explained in vivid detail how scientists rigorously and deliberately employ the scientific method in their never-ending search for answers. It is with similar vigilance, he explained, that individuals must consider the multitude of messages around them to become truly “media-literate.”
“A scientific theory is a very well-tested explanation, built from facts, confirmed hypotheses, and inferences,” according to the physics professor. “It is more powerful than a fact because it explains facts.”
Unfortunately, said Sekula, the word “theory” is often likened to “opinion” in public dialogue — as in “human-caused climate change is just a theory” — but there’s an essential difference between theory and opinion. Scientists know the difference, of course, but so should all citizens. Thus, a media-literate person sees a red flag whenever someone — a “pseudoscientist” — uses “theory” and “opinion” interchangeably.
“Pseudoscience readily admits opinions and equates that with the idea of scientific theory,” explained Sekula, “requiring no high quality evidence to make explanatory claims about the world.”
And there it was: the explanation for so much happening in the public sphere right now. Fake news, conspiracy theories, science-averse officials appointed to science-dependent federal agencies. Professor Sekula’s message could not be more timely and, therefore, newsworthy.
From the early stages of his presidency, Donald Trump has appeared tone-deaf to the concept of science. He named climate-change doubter Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency, his vice president has encouraged equal time for creationism in science classes, and he personally believes vaccines could cause autism. Sadly, that’s only scratching the surface of Trump’s allegiance to pseudoscience. No wonder “many in the science community have expressed concern about the [administration’s] lack of science literacy.”
Clearly, those fears are well founded. In additional news from last week, the Science Advisory Board, a group of 47 individuals — mostly scientists — who inform the EPA of the scientific efficacy of environmental regulations, is slated for an 84 percent cut in Trump’s budget.
“The unfortunate thing is that this is the main way that the administrator gets scientific advice on things that the EPA proposes,” said William Schlesinger, a member of the advisory board. “It’s supposed to be an unbiased sounding board, and I think it’s functioned exceptionally well in those capacities.”
While this pushback against science is largely advocacy for a pro-business agenda, it’s a shortsighted approach —
especially considering American businesses can only be as successful as America itself.
Writes Peter Hotez, former US Science Envoy for the State Department: “The U.S. will face enormous challenges in the next year, including potential defense security threats in North Korea, the South China Sea (China has dramatically stepped up its science investments), and the Middle East; border issues with Mexico and Canada; and disease pandemic threats from H7N9 pandemic flu and other zoonotic viral diseases, in addition to Zika and yellow fever virus infections transmitted by mosquitoes.”
“Asking Congress to approve budget increases for defense and homeland security,” Hotez adds, “without parallel investments in American science runs counter to a historical and proven winning formula.”
As professor Stephen Sekula might explain, Hotez — a physician and scientist — bases his pro-science remarks on scientific theory. Trump’s debasement of science, conversely, is based predominantly on opinion. Considering the very future of America — and the planet — is at stake, which do you prefer?
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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