Science educators spend a lot of time debating what students need to learn to be considered scientifically literate. Despite our best intentions, many of these conversations boil down to a deliberation about facts—which set of facts do students need to know? As a scientist, I love facts. I think it’d be wonderful if every student that graduated from an American high school knew that a carbon atom had six protons, and that Darwin sailed on the Beagle. I’d never suggest that facts aren’t important, because they are—but there is nothing more important for a student to learn in a science class than what exactly science is.
“What is science?” is a question that many science teachers will ask their students on day one of a new semester. It’s also a question that, I’d wager, most people would have trouble answering. Science refers to the sum total of our knowledge about the natural world as well as the varied methods by which that knowledge has been obtained. If the definition seems nebulous, it’s with good reason—science is actually pretty difficult to precisely define, but that doesn’t mean that it’s hard to determine what is science and what is not.
The website Understanding Science provides a handy checklist of science characteristics. Science is:
- focused on the natural world;
- aims to explain the natural world;
- uses testable ideas;
- relies on evidence;
- involves the scientific community;
- leads to ongoing research; and
- is promoted by scientific behavior.
Taken together, these characteristics can be used as a litmus test for science. If something—say, research into the effects of carbon compounds in the atmosphere on Earth’s climate system—meets all seven checklist items, then it’s science. If something—say, an opinion about the morality of a given climate change policy—fails to meet one (or more) of the requirements, then it’s not science. Easy. Unfortunately, however, “nonscience” is regularly mistaken for science. “Intelligent design,” for example, is often presented as a valid, scientific alternative to evolution. But “intelligent design” is not science at all, as it fails (at a minimum) checklist items 3–7. An opinion about the morality of a climate policy is not science, either, because it fails (again, at minimum) checklist item 2, since offering moral praise or condemnation is an activity distinct from offering explanations.
Anyone charged with studying for a science test knows why facts are important—science is based on them. It is a fact, for example, that carbon dioxide gas in the atmosphere traps radiant heat. And knowing that fact is crucial in forming conclusions on the basis of the available evidence about how the climate is changing. Too often, however, simple facts like these are characterized as mere opinions held by those on “one side” of a supposed debate. Framing climate science in this way undermines the facts and the integrity of scientific research.
Evidence, in the form of facts, supports theories. In common parlance, a theory is a hunch, a speculative guess. You might say, for example, “Based on the last episode, I have a theory about what will happen on Sherlock next season.” But in science, a theory is a systematic explanation for a range of natural phenomena. Evolutionary biology, climate science, and really any area of science you care to name abound in theories, because—remember (2) on the checklist?—science aims to explain the natural world, and that’s an aim fulfilled by scientific theories. But scientific theories are the opposite of hunches—indeed, well-established theories are the culminations of scientific endeavor. And yet how often have you heard someone dismiss evolution or climate change as “just a theory,” as if it were mere conjecture?
In the first three months of 2017, five antiscience bills (in Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Iowa, and Arkansas) and one resolution (in Indiana) were introduced in state legislatures. These measures are justified by their proponents as encouraging healthy scientific skepticism through the discussion of “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories. But although being skeptical is a hallmark of scientific thinking, measures such as these, which protect teachers from any repercussions if they introduce nonscience—like intelligent design—into their science classrooms, leave open the possibility that science literacy could be undermined, instead of promoted.
It has never been more important to push back against the persistent tide of science illiteracy, and as educators, we must see it as our duty to arm our students with the tools they need to succeed and to advance our society. Key to that is their ability to answer a one-question test: What is science? Ever the optimist, I’m determined to do all I can to ensure that they—and that all of us—can pass that test.