'Post-Truth' Society - First ideas for action

Photo: Dr Kari Kivinen (Faktabaari EDU), Prof Jonathan Osborne (Stanford University and Dr Carita Kiili (CRITICAL EDU) in front of the webinar hosting Heureka on 3.12.2021

Professor Osborne and science education potential to tackle disinformation

Faktabaari chaired a science education webinar hosted by Heureka on 3 December 2021 with the title Developing Student Critical Capabilities for a “Post-Truth” Society. The keynote speech was given by Jonathan Osborne, the Stanford University emeritus professor and the chair of the teaching critical and evaluative thinking in science expert group. In the same webinar, Faktabaari EDU, Critical EDU and FINSCI -project presented their activities.

In his keynote speech (link to youtube recording), professor Osborne presented four fundamental questions the international expert group coordinated by him tries to answer:

  1. Why is the competence to evaluate expertise and information needed by members of the public?
  2. What evidence is there that students struggle to evaluate information successfully?
  3. Why should science education, in particular, strive to develop students’ competency to evaluate the credibility of information?
  4. What can be done in science education to develop the competency to evaluate information and scientific expertise critically?

The key message of professor Osborne was that many of the issues that people seek information on have a scientific basis. In the past year, for instance, people have been asking “Should I wear a mask?” or “How serious is climate change?” Answering these questions requires a knowledge of some science but more importantly, a knowledge of who can be trusted. Evaluating scientific claims or arguments requires an understanding of the processes that the scientific community uses to justify its claims to know. Science teachers should be engaged to go through with their students how to verify online scientific claims and how to check if an expert is a real expert of the particular field. Mr Osborne also shared in his presentation some initial answers and reflections to the four questions. The final report will be published in the spring 2022.

Professor Osborne shared also some initial action plan his group is working on:

“We acknowledge that making space for science education to undertake such tasks and develop required competency will be challenging when too much is already asked of a science curriculum. The forthcoming report will offer examples of what teachers can do. At the undergraduate level, substantive work has been already undertaken by Nobel prize winner, Saul Perlmutter, with his course on “Sense and Sensibility in Science”1 for undergraduates of all disciplines which, encouragingly, is being adopted at Colleges across the USA. Likewise, Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West offer a course called “Calling Bullshit: Data Reasoning in a Digital World”2 and an eponymous book which has also been taken up in other colleges.

However, it cannot be left to undergraduate education to remedy the omissions of school science. Especially given its lack of uniformity. We argue that it does not make sense, to ask that all students are taught Ohm’s Law, the chemical structure of benzene, or the difference between meiosis and mitosis – knowledge which is rarely, if ever used, when the knowledge and competencies we have discussed here are key to effective participation in a democratic society. If this means sacrificing some of the shibboleths of content that populate most science curricula, then so be it. Our view is that little will be lost and much will be gained both for society and its students.

Clearly the next iteration of standards needs to attend to these matters. To wait for those, however, would be to wait too long. Both the scientific and the science education community must recognize the urgency of addressing these issues in their classrooms. Engaging with students and non-scientists to make the case for scientific expertise, its intellectual achievement and why it should be trusted has to permeate scientists’ and science educators’ daily habitus and being. Espousing both the value and the values of science is not something to be ashamed of.

Our initial view is that addressing this issue requires:

A. Policymakers: Should undertake an urgent re-evaluation of the curriculum to ensure that this competency is a core feature of any science curricula.

B. Curriculum Development: None of this will be addressed if suitable materials are not made readily available. These may be text based, video based or both but their development is Essential.

C. Teacher Training and Development: Developing the competency to obtain, communicate and evaluate information has to be a focus of teacher training, teacher professional development and teacher conferences.

D. Assessment: Being able to identify flaws in scientific arguments – that is why the wrong answer is wrong – must matter as much as being able to justify why the right answer is right. It is the latter which is the standard focus of most science assessments. This does not require a major shift so much as a gestalt shift in the way questions are framed and, we would argue, is readily implementable.

We cannot bemoan the plethora of misinformation and credulity of some of the public, if we are not prepared to defend what we hold dear. In short, explaining why science matters and why and when it should be trusted.

Professor Osborne visited Finland to address Finnish science education community on how to contribute to tackling disinformation.Visit enabled also exchanges with Finnish digital literacy researchers on comparing best practices for the final report of the expert group “Teaching Critical and Evaluative Thinking in Science*” joined also by Faktabaari EDU via Dr Kari Kivinen.

You can find the full recording of the webinar including Faktabaari EDU, Critical EDU and FINSCI -project presentations here: https://faktabaari.fi/edu/developing-student-critical-capabilties-for-a-post-truth-society/

The visit of Professor Jonathan Osborne is part of an Faktabaari EDU independently initiated exchange of US and Finnish media and information literacy best practices co-funded by Avoin yhteiskunta NGO and US Embassy in Helsinki grant.

Kari Kivinen, Professor Osborne and Mikko Salo at US Embassy

Kari Kivinen, Prof Osborne and Mikko Salo having contributed to a roundtable discussion organised at US Embassy.

*Teaching Critical and Evaluative Thinking in Science project has been led by Professor Jonathan Osborn from Graduate School of Education, Stanford University. Bringing together an international group of experts, it has explored how science education should respond to the challenges posed by the abuse of scientific information and evidence in a ‘Post-Truth’ Society. In its work it has sought to identify both the generic tools that are important and those which are specific to science that students need to be introduced to and developed in elementary, secondary and undergraduate education. Specifically, what cognitive capabilities and knowledge do students need to address the challenges posed by misinformation and disinformation about science on the internet. It will argue that current science education must address this issue as it is central to restoring trust in science.



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