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Opinions Are Not Facts: How Scientific Curiosity May Save Us

Nov 04, 2020   |   by Alexis Abramson   |   Medium

Facts fighting against beliefs

Facts are under attack. Flooded with competing information that appeals to our beliefs or deep-seated emotions, we take misinformation on social media or news outlets at face value. Some of us even fall for harmful conspiracy theories.

As a result, we are divided today on what should be relatively uncontroversial issues such as climate change, mask wearing, and vaccines. But even more concerning is the abundance of local, state, and federal leaders who dismiss ground truth to push political agendas or justify detrimental policy decisions.

Why aren’t we — the average citizen and the public policy maker — looking to science to make fully informed decisions? Why do some of us outright dismiss well-supported facts and readily believe unsubstantiated falsehoods?

Take for example, a peer-reviewed study published in June 2020 that provides clear scientific evidence of reduced COVID-19 transmission through physical distancing and the use of face masks and eye protection. However, some leaders still are reluctant to institute relatively simple public health measures that have proven effective at reducing the spread of this disease.

Or, consider the August 2020 action taken by the Environmental Protection Agency to weaken a climate change regulation, freeing oil and gas companies from the requirement to detect and address methane leaks, a scientifically-accepted source of harmful and significant emissions. This action essentially ignores the peer-reviewed published research that we can gain substantial climate, air quality, and health benefits by controlling methane emissions.

For decades, vaccines have saved millions of lives by providing immunity to polio, measles, smallpox, and other infectious diseases. In recent years, skeptics and fraudulent people who ignore sound scientific data have set into motion an anti-vax movement that puts our society at untold, unnecessary risk. The movement preys on the hopes of worried parents looking for answers with rumors and false information about vaccines. Even when presented with scientific evidence that vaccines do not cause autism — and that vaccines can actually protect their children and the society at large from preventable illness or death — some still choose not to vaccinate their children.

Why we ignore facts

Research has shown that humans, unfortunately, are pretty terrible at deciphering truth from fiction, even when presented with facts. People tend to believe that they know more than they actually do. And, people feel good when they process information that supports their beliefs, even if that information is false. For many reasons, human brains (even very smart ones) are wired to accept inaccurate information.

But, an opinion based on feeling or desire cannot become a fact no matter how much we want it to be. How do we overcome our natural complacency for seeking ground truth? Are we just not scientifically curious enough?

A few years ago, I read an article about the link between scientific curiosity and misinformation that stuck with me. Dan Kahan, a professor of psychology at Yale University, investigated whether a person with greater curiosity about science might act as a more open-minded critical thinker. Essentially, the research explores whether people who are driven by curiosity are more likely to question unfamiliar facts or seek out well-founded evidence prior to drawing conclusions. Preliminary results show that yes, people with greater scientific curiosity are more likely to question surprising information, even if that information is contrary to their political predispositions.

The benefits of nurturing scientific curiosity

Based on these early findings, I wonder if our complacency to seek the truth partly stems from the failures of our country’s educational system to cultivate inborn scientific curiosity. In most schools, we still push rote learning, even though simple facts and figures are now available at the command of our smartphones. The “sage-on-the-stage” style of lecturing to a room full of children sitting quietly at their desks is still commonplace in our schools — a 5-year-old’s curiosities about planets, dinosaurs, and spaceships squelched by age 15 and replaced by boredom.

If the premise is true, that scientific curiosity breeds open-minded critical thinkers who grow up to become informed decision-making citizens and policy makers, then we need to go much further to nurture such curiosity in schools, colleges, and universities. Susan Engel from Williams College argues that by developing students’ own interests and encouraging curiosity, authentic learning ensues. Even more, curiosity is cultivated when students are actively engaged in learning, enabling them to pose questions, experiment, explore their creativity, identify links to the real world, and solve problems. Curiosity not only helps our students learn to seek the truth, it will help them continue to thrive in the future. In fact, a 2011 peer-reviewed scientific article found that intellectual curiosity is a predictor of academic performance.

To nurture scientific curiosity, we science educators must do a better job of opening the doors to science to a greater number of and a more diverse body of students. I’ve written previously about how we can accomplish making science more inclusive. Yet, opportunities for active and engaged learning remain largely absent across the academic landscape in our country. At Dartmouth, approximately 50 percent of a recent graduating engineering class did not initially identify engineering as a potential major when they first set foot on campus. Many of these students pointed to “Introduction to Engineering,” a human-centered, project-based, experiential course open to all students as the reason they chose to pivot toward engineering. In many cases, the experience piqued an untapped scientific curiosity in them.

By developing innate curiosity and wiring our students’ brains from an early age to think logically and analytically, we can help them discern whether what they read or hear is likely a fact based on sound evidence or a conspiracy theory. Whether a news story, a Tweet, or a YouTube video is politically motivated or backed by evidence. By cultivating curiosity, we can teach them to be critical thinkers, to ask questions, and to not accept ideas at face value.

So, as you navigate our complex and ever-changing world, make a conscious effort to pique your own curiosity. Critique statements. Ask questions. Demand evidence.

When you go to the polls, research your candidates. Vote for leaders who have the ability to move beyond emotion or political motivations and seek input from evidenced-based research. Support candidates who value scientific inquiry, accuracy, and transparency to inform policy-making.

And, beyond the voting booth, let’s find more ways for educators to cultivate scientific curiosity in our students. Our future depends on it.

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