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How to create Anti Vaxxers and Flat Earthers

An interesting development of recent times is the growing body of people opposed to basic science. They question if the Earth is really flat, if vaccines really do anything useful, if climate change is really caused by humans, and so on. While the common perception is that these views come from a lack of schooling, I have started to question this view.

Having taught science in schools since 2013, I have started to believe that perhaps the way children learn science in school is actually the cause of this growing science denialism. In other words, in spite of all our intentions to the contrary, we could be creating anti vaxxers, flat earthers and the like en masse within our classrooms! How is this possible?

More often than not, students are required to accept scientific facts from the curriculum as given. One student may understand and see the meaning behind a scientific explanation, while another may not. However, both are expected to write the same answers on the test. This setup systematically rewards students for spouting opinions that they don't believe. Of course, we shouldn't expect anyone to believe a scientific theory if they don't even understand it.

Every time a student gets rewarded for providing a school-approved answer that doesn't really make sense to them, we reinforce the idea that science should be accepted on faith and on the basis of authority. How ironic, considering the plight of scientists like Darwin and Galileo, who were opposed by the Church for hundreds of years!

By rewarding students to sometimes answer tests and exams using ideas that they are not yet personally convinced of, we convert the human desire to find sense in the world into a flame of distrust against the arbitrariness of school science. Ironically again, this healthy curiosity and skepticism is what we should hope to see students employing against poor science. Instead, by compelling superficial acceptance of textbook explanations framed as "science", we turn that skepticism against ourselves.

Once this happens, there are two possible outcomes. Minds with lower confidence and independence simply accept their own inability to comprehend what it all means, and learn to take new science on faith. If the US Surgeon General says masks don't work, they will believe it. If the government then turns around and says "masks are compulsory", they will believe it.

However, there is a subset of people who never really understood science in the classroom, but still maintain enough independence of mind to: a) question authority, and b) look for alternative answers. Neither of these are inherently anti-scientific approaches. The reason they tend to lead to anti-science conclusions is because of the huge amount of distrust that school was able to manufacture against science.

One conclusion that we could draw is that it's essential to focus on getting more students to understand the basics. However, this approach misses the point. Even the best students often find themselves in the position of repeating "correct" answers while not really knowing why those answers are correct.

A much more effective approach would get to the heart of the incentive problem, by encouraging learners to think for themselves, and make sense for themselves. Doing so makes it much less likely that they will develop the strong distrust of science that so many modern students privately exhibit. At worst, these curious and confident young learners will wonder why the rest of society believes what they do. They will ask their own questions and form their own opinions. That's what real scientists do.

April 2021
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Georgios Zonnios
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