What the Covid-19 Pandemic Should Teach Us about “Science”

RWE speak today

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance”

For nearly twenty years now, I have been examining misconceptions about and misrepresentations of “scientific” as it relates to what evidence supports teaching practices and school policy. The problem that I confront over and over is complicated since scientific evidence absolutely does matter in making large and small educational decisions, and educators and policy-makers must remain vigilant in monitoring who determines what “science” matters in those processes.

For example in the early 2000s, the National Reading Panel as a major component of No Child Left Behind was charged with examining the scientific evidence behind how to teach reading. Along with the problems exposed after NRP released their findings, I raised red flags about handing over what science matters from disciplinary structures to bureaucratic/political mandates.

At least one concern raised about the conclusions of NRP is that this bureaucratic body made a contested decision about which studies met the bar of “scientific,” a debate that has existed for some time in academia and research broadly as well as in each discipline.

For the most part, NRP’s decision does reflect a traditional bias for quantitative research and experimental/quasi-experimental methods, but that decision effectively erased a huge body of evidence about how to teach reading.

However, from NCLB and NRP to the failed implementation of Common Core standards and the concurrent high-stakes tests, the irony is that bureaucratically determined and mandated “science” tends to work in significantly unscientific ways—and also tends to fail.

More recently, I have confronted a similar dynamic in the “science of reading” movement. With the release of a policy statement attempting to call for resisting the problems with both the media narrative and the state-level reading policies that narrative is driving, many of the challenges to the policy reflect why debates around “science” are doomed regardless of anyone’s intent.

First, “science” is a term used in many different ways, particularly important is to recognize that scholars and scientists often mean something quite different than the general public, the media, or political leaders.

I show students the documentary Flock of Dodos, a rambling film that explores the incessant debate over teaching evolution in public schools that does an excellent job exposing the really jumbled communication among evolutionary scientists, the media, and the public.

For students, I ask them to consider people who say they do not “believe” in evolution because it is “just a theory.” We unpack both the inappropriate verb (“believe” is incompatible with science; faith v. empirical evidence) but also that the general public confuses “theory” with “hypothesis,” which is an important distinction for scientists (similar to the correlation/cause confusion).

In the documentary, in fact, the scientists admit that “fact” is a better word than “theory” for discussing evolution with the lay public because a scientific theory is the conclusion made from the scientific process and the accumulation of evidence, proof.

Next, however, much that humans know about the world and human experience is still being examined; therefore, most scientists see “facts” as ways to guide us in any moment while also leaving the door open for more evidence, some supporting what we know or some that may change our knowledge base in small or even significant ways.

Evolutionary science and climate change science are extremely compelling bodies of science, but neither is likely finished, or settled. Science, in fact, is buoyed in great part by those who are willing to continue to test and replicate the science most of them are comfortable with extolling as “fact.”

This nuance is typically too complicated for the lay public, resulting in some who see science as the fist of God and some who think “you can make research mean anything.” Both extremes are harmful for science and humanity.

My concerns about the “science of reading” narrative and the resulting reading policy being considered and adopted by states are that the narrative itself makes a case for a far too narrow view of “science” (similar to NRP, which advocates and the media routinely cite) and wield “settled” in ways that remind me of how people in the South reference God and the Bible to shut down anyone challenging authority.

One aspect of the current Covid-19 pandemic, then, that I have been following is how the media, political leaders, and the public have interacted with the science of medicine during the U.S.’s response to this health crisis.

Not insignificant, as one example, in this situation is the governor of Georgia two months into the spread of the pandemic in the U.S. saying that he just learned in the last 24 hours that people who are asymptomatic can spread Covid-19, something that has been widely reported in media.

Here are some ways that the Covid-19 pandemic offers lessons on “science”:

  • The evolving official messages (WHO, CDC) on people wearing face masks reflect that science is often complicated, but that the media and political leaders rush to oversimplify. With face masks in short supply in the U.S., the initial message suggesting that healthy people not wear masks reflected making decisions based on the relationship between supply and demand—not that masks made no difference for healthy people (although if you read carefully, the evidence about face mask effectiveness is far from settled and often contradictory). As WHO and the CDC change their recommendations, people, I think, will see “science” as arbitrary, missing the context for the initial and revised recommendations.
  • State and international comparisons of data have been a powerful lesson about how data are gathered, how any statistic is calculated and defined, and how data are displayed on charts and graphs. Rates and percentages have been tossed around in ways that are mind boggling and disorienting. I highly recommend this tutorial for navigating statistics and graphic representations of that data. I also suggest taking a critical view of the recent cell phone data used to identify which states are complying with social distancing. Pappas warns “the numbers should be taken with a grain of salt,” after sharing: “‘Travel distance is one aspect, but of course people can travel far without meeting a soul or travel 50 feet and end up in a crowd — so we know that the real world picture can be quite complex,'” Waller noted.”
  • How Covid-19 is spread, how vaccines and tests to detect viruses are created and implemented, how different viruses can or cannot be compared, and how any virus remains active on surfaces and in changing weather have all been very complex and much debated topics in the media—reflecting the importance of how the media report complicated scientific information. Science is often held hostage to the quality of the reporting, and journalists tend to be ill equipped to understand any and all complex fields of specialization.
  • Nothing new, of course, but the Covid-19 pandemic emphasizes the importance of relying on credible sources and information outlets and also the problem with social media and meme culture that allows the spread of easily disputed false information. With the rise of Trump and this health crisis, however, at least there are far more opportunities for people accessing fact-checking web sites.

In real time, we are witnessing where compelling science intersects with science that is in-process, nowhere close to settled. The Covid-19 pandemic should teach us that science is incredibly important while also being imperfect and often inadequate. Nothing, not tests or vaccines, is 100% despite some wanting science to be black-and-white in its conclusions.

Another lesson is that the relationship between experts (academics, scientists, doctors) and the lay public as that is facilitated by the media often works in ways that detract from the potential for science to serve us all well.

Covid-19 is a life-or-death matter, yet even with that urgency, ultimately we must acknowledge that science is not a hammer, but given the skeptical respect and space it deserves, science could be our best opportunity for a better world.