Professor Jonathan Osborne (Kampala, Uganda, 72 years old), professor emeritus in science education at Stanford University (United States), defends “the professionalism and specialization of experts in the post-truth era”. Faced with individualistic discourses, where access to knowledge has directly caused people to believe they are alien to others, the professor warns that we still need countless professionals versed in their subjects. Osborne, chairman of the think tank responsible for developing the OECD’s PISA framework for science assessments, has specialized in teaching for decades. After graduating in physics, he went on to teach, both at secondary and university level, already at King’s College London (UK). Invited by the European Science Teaching Initiative for Teachers of the Foundation for Science and Technology, the researcher’s work has always been focused on finding the best methodology in the teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “We depend epistemically on the skills of scientists, just like plumbers, lawyers or doctors,” he says in his opening speech Scientific education in an era of misinformation, during the III National Scientix Congress at the National Museum of Science in Alcobendas (Madrid).
Ask. What role does science play in today’s society?
Response. Our scientific understanding of the world is one of humanity’s greatest intellectual achievements. And I wish most people would be able to explain to me why. If I were a professor of literature, anyone would be able to explain why Shakespeare or Cervantes are great writers. But can they do it with science? That is a problem, because it means that we have failed to communicate their achievements.
Q. What does scientific knowledge give us?
A. Science is a set of beliefs based on arguments from evidence. So, to give a simple example, why do we believe that day and night are caused by the Earth’s spin? Most people can’t produce proof of that, which is a bit worrying in that regard. Much of what is taught to students in science school is what I call the established facts of science. And they believe it because it’s in the textbook. There’s nothing wrong with that, but asking students to create things like that all the time is very problematic. You want to give them the opportunity to see the tests from time to time.
Q. You refer to that as epistemic truth, how do we know what we know?
A. Consensus is formed in science because someone has an idea about a topic and argues it from the evidence. People used to think that ulcers were caused by stress, but then they discovered that they are caused by bacteria. A finding by itself is not enough, you have to use that knowledge over and over again, and test it in different contexts.
Science teaching in schools should take more into account the wow factor!
P. Is it because of the consensus that science is sometimes seen as haughty, that it only belongs to an elite?
R. I think there is a big problem with the teaching of science. I wrote a report on it a long time ago, the average student goes to a 50-minute class, learns one science fact, comes back a week later and is taught another. So what young people learn are the building blocks of scientific knowledge, and they are not able to see the big picture at all. The only people who really get to see the building very easily are those who continue to study and become scientists.
If they only give you the answers, without explaining the questions, we have a problem. Science education starts from a wrong place. That is to say: “I am going to tell you this scientific theory that we are all adapted to the environment in which we live”. It’s kind of amazing, but what does that mean? Education must start from the point of view of questions about the world; however, most textbooks tell you the facts, but not what they are answering. One of the most amazing chemical reactions on Earth occurs in plants, photosynthesis; It’s incredible because if it didn’t happen you wouldn’t have plants and, ultimately, animals, because we depend on them.
P. Knowing how to communicate what is spectacular about science, do you think that the popularization of knowledge or scientific popularizers are more successful in knowing how to express it?
A. Yes, they clearly do a better job. If you look at your hand you are stardust made flesh, because all the atoms of your body were synthesized in a galaxy. Science teaching in schools should take more into account the wow factor! The classic example of getting across the fascinating idea that your life exists for 70 to 90 years and that you are one of billions of people on Earth, on this little planet that is orbiting the Sun, and that there are 100 billion these only in our own galaxy. That is amazing. The school fails when it comes to transmitting that idea of a sense of wonder that science provokes.
Osborne during his conference on disinformation at the FECYT-INTEF Scientix event
Q. What can we do against an erroneous belief, see flat earthing, when a group defines itself through it? How to cancel an element that generates identity?
R. For pure psychology, do not tell them that they are wrong, nobody likes to hear “you are not right”. You must interact, listen to their reasoning and then present them with information that contradicts them because they are selective with their data. It requires a lot of patience. We all exist in bubbles, we have to face it. So the first thing you have to do, and this is part of education, so it becomes a long-term project, is intellectual humility. It is a much stronger position. If you can explain to someone why the wrong answer is wrong. Knowing the correct answer is not enough. Also politically, even if you find it offensive, you have to know the arguments of the other side. There must be dialogue.
Q. In science, by definition, there is always the possibility that fellow scientists will prove you wrong, does that make you humble?
A. True, but let’s assume that doing science is very competitive: careers, publications, wanting to enter the top of the academy and access the best journals… Obviously, as a scientist you want to be proven right and that your discoveries are significant, yeah, that’s just human nature. The best thing is that the scientific community has invented a model, peer review, which, not without problems, is what allows something published to be relevant. It is the community that decides, via consensus. It is an example of critical thinking, Karl Popper’s idea of falsifiability.
P. How do you communicate uncertainty, when a truth is partial or probabilistic?
R. We give students complex information, messy data so that they can understand how convulsive reality is. Even measuring the temperature of the class usually yields percentages that appear to be contradictory, which is why we explain the methodology on how to reach agreements, isolate outliers, trends and eliminate sample noise when building your data set. Thus we educate that it is necessary to explore the nature of uncertainty instead of simply providing an answer. We also invite you to theorize, why should we trust science? Should they believe the data on climate change? This serves to teach them that they should check their sources.
If you present science as a bunch of fixed, established facts, which I have no influence or opinion on and which are of little value to me, then I will lose interest.
P. You defend the function of the expert against the fiction that we can all know everything and be independent. How to delegate decision-making and trust authorized voices again?
A. In the case of science, you have to assess the experience of the scientist. Who claims this is a recognized professional? He must have a doctorate, right? You have to check that he is active and working in a recognizable place, a university or research center. Finally, the most important thing: we must know if what he is affirming is from his field of knowledge. An immunologist is not an expert in agriculture. That is why the term “scientist” as a label creates problems, it is a very specialized profession.
Q. The FECYT publishes regular information about the social perception of science and technology, and in its surveys it shows a pronounced decline in interest from early adulthood to old age.
A. It is quite universal. Part of the reason is that I think basically people think we live in a scientific and technological society, and the answer is no; We live in a humanistic society. People like to interact with other people, to hear what they do and how they act. The other thing I think is that science teaches in a way that fundamentally works, in some ways, against what it has to offer. If you present science as a bunch of fixed, established facts that I have no influence or opinion on and have little value to me, then I’ll lose interest. The scientist Claude Bernard, in the 19th century, said that science is like a room full of amazement and wonder, the problem is that to get to that room you must first cross a long, dark passageway.