Category Archives: science

Understanding “Science” as Not Simple, Not Settled: Meta-Analysis Edition

A powerful but often harmful relationship exists among research/science, mainstream media, and public policy.

One current example of that dynamic is the “science of reading” (SOR) movement that is driving reading legislation and policy in more than 30 states (see HERE and HERE).

Mauren Aukerman, who has posted two of three planned posts on media coverage of SOR (HERE and HERE), identifies in that second post a key failure of media: Error of Insufficient Understanding 3: Spurious Claims that One Approach is Settled Science.

For example, Aukerman details with citations to high-quality research/science: “In short, there is insufficient evidence to conclude that any single approach, including the particular systematic phonics approach often elided with ‘the science of reading,’ is most effective.” And therefore, Aukerman recommends: “Be skeptical of ‘science of reading’ news that touts ‘settled science,’ especially if such claims are used to silence disagreement.

What makes media a dangerous mechanism for translating research/science into policy is that journalists routinely oversimplify and misrepresent research/science as “settled” when, in reality, most research/science is an ongoing conversation with data that presents varying degrees of certainty about whatever questions that research/science explores.

In education, research/science seeks to identify what instruction leads best to student learning—such as in the reading debate.

The other problem with media serving as a mechanism between research/science and policy is that journalists are often trapped in presentism and either perpetuate or are victims of fadism.

Despite no settled research/science supporting media’s coverage of the current reading “crisis,” the initial “science of reading” narrative created by Emily Hanford has now become standard media narratives without any effort to check for validity (again, I highly recommend Aukerman’s first post).

Regretfully, education (and students, teacher, parents, and society) is regularly the victim of fadism at the expense of research/science. The list of recent edu-fads that were promoted uncritically by media only to gradually lose momentum because, frankly, they simply never were valid policies is quite long: charter schools (notably no-excuses models), value-added methods for evaluating/paying teachers, school choice, Common Core, etc.

Two fads that represent well how the misuse of “science” helps this failed cycle in education are “grit” and growth mindset. Both gained their introduction to mainstream education because media portrayed the concepts are research/science-based (even justified, as “grit” was, by the Genius grant).

While schools fell all over themselves, uncritically, to embrace and implement “grit” and growth mindset, the research community gradually revealed that both concepts have some important research and ideological problems. Scholars have produced research/science that complicates claims about “grit” and growth mindset, and many critical scholars continue to call for interrogating the racist/classist groundings of both concepts.

Growth mindset has been in the news again (and discussed on social media) because two recent meta-analyses reach different conclusions; see this Twitter thread for details:

Tipton and co-authors, in fact, have published an analysis and commentary on this problem: Why Meta-Analyses of Growth Mindset and Other Interventions Should Follow Best Practices for Examining Heterogeneity.

The issue raised about meta-analyses parallels the exact problem with media coverage of research/science—scientific methodologies that fail due to oversimplification. See this Tweet, for example, about meta-analyses:

Especially in education, when individual student needs greatly impact what is “best” for teaching and learning in any given moment, Tipton’s final Tweet cannot be over-emphasized:

The use of “science” in research is necessarily limiting (see HERE) when that “science” is restricted to experimental/quasi-experimental designs seeking proof of cause (does instructional approach X cause students to learn better than instructional approach Y).

While causal conclusions and research methods that address populations and controls are the Gold Standard for high-quality research/science, this type of “science” is often less valuable for the practical day-to-day messiness of teaching and learning.

Educators are better served when research/science is used to inform practice, not to mandate one-size-fits-all practice (see HERE).

The media and journalists more often than not turn research/science into oversimplified truisms that then are used as baseball bats to beat policy advocates into submission. The conversation and nuance are sacrificed along with effective policy.

The public and policymakers are left with a challenge, a way to be critical and careful when either the media or researchers present research/science.

As Aukerman warns, if journalists or researchers start down the “simple, settled” path, then they are likely not credible (or they have an agenda) because the real story is far more complicated.

See Also

The misdirection of public policy: comparing and combining standardised effect sizes, Adrian Simpson


Beware The Reading League

In 2019, Richard Allington [1] confronted the outsized influence of state chapters of Decoding Dyslexia on state legislation and classroom practices related to not only dyslexia but also teaching beginning readers.

Ultimately, despite the good intentions of this advocacy and despite the need to address any and all students struggling to read (disproportionately among marginalized and vulnerable populations), Decoding Dyslexia advocacy has caused more harm than good, Allington and others assert.

This dynamic should give all of us pause because the same pattern is now occurring with The Reading League, a national advocacy organization promoting the “science of reading” through an expanding number of state-level affiliates.

The Reading League implores people to “join the movement” and has issued a Defining Guide on the “science of reading,” available as a book or a downloadable PDF (if you fill out a form and share a good deal of your information):

The cover page of the ebook (formatted throughout like a PowerPoint presentation) sets the stage for what proves to be more advocacy that “science” despite the emphasis on “defining” and “science.”

This 40-page ebook is a disturbing but perfect illustration of the core problems among “science of reading” advocates. As other literacy scholars have noted, all across the different factions of “science of reading” advocates, the arguments and claims are riddled with contradictions, oversimplifications, cherry-picking, and casual lapses into anecdote [2].

Similar to many other advocacy organizations masquerading as a (We Don’t) Think Tank (for example, NCTQ), The Reading League uses slick PDF creation and the veneer of scholarly citation (as well as an inordinate number of brain images) to mask the many ways this ebook fails to meet the standard they themselves set for the teaching of reading.

All must beware of The Reading League and its growing influence because this “movement” fails in the exact ways confronted by Hoffman, Hikida, and Sailors (2020) in Reading Research Quarterly: “the SOR community do not employ the same standards for scientific research that they claimed as the basis for their critiques” (S259). [3]

Here I will detail a few of the essential failures of The Reading League’s “movement” in their “Defining Guide.”

The organization advocates for a “common” definition of the “science of reading” and offers one on page 6 with a note to see further justifications for the limited (and limiting) parameters of that definition on page 11. In short, The Reading League is recycling the “scientifically-based” mantra of the National Reading Panel (NRP) and limiting the “science of reading” to experimental/quasi-experimental research.

While this is a popular and politically enticing approach, that limitation has been refuted for a couple decades now. Let me share just a couple reasons (see endnotes for sources) for why excluding evidence outside that parameter is wrong for education and wrong for guiding reading instruction:

  • Problems with the reports issued by the NRP and the difficulty of implementing that evidence have been widely documented by a number of literacy scholars. [4] Repeating the errors of the NRP is bad policy, bad advocacy, and bad thinking.
  • Educational practice requires a wide range of evidence, not a limited view of what counts as science. Many scholars has addressed the tyranny of using “science” as a weapon, a distortion of both the essence of “science” and the on-going nature of inquiry (hint: the science of any field, including reading science, is not settled). [5]

Another element of the limited and limiting parameters for what counts as reading “science” is an over-reliance on brain research. The defining guide implies a diversity of disciplinary sources for defining reading “science,” but their little list suggests otherwise:

The limited parameters are grounded in psychology, and brain research.

If you dont get the focus on “brain research,” the guide is there to make it clear:

Oddly, this image has no text, no citation, leaving me to wonder what the hell this is for (except this is how my brain feels when I have to engage with “science of reading” nonsense).

Here is an extremely important point: Scholars have challenged the conclusions being drawn from brain research:

Within the neurosciences, however, serious critiques of brain-imaging methods have emerged. Many researchers in neurobiology (e.g., Elliott et al., 2020; Hickok, 2014; Lyon, 2017) have voiced alarming concerns about the validity and preciseness of brain imaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to detect reliable biomarkers in processes such as reading and in the diagnosis of other mental activity….

However, Elliott et al.’s (2020) statement “that commonly used task-fMRI measures lack the minimal reliability standards” (p. 801) for identifying abnormal brain activity should raise serious caveats in interpreting any imaging study as applicable to classroom applications. [6]

Yaden, D.B., Reinking, D., & Smagorinsky, P. (2021). The trouble with binaries: A perspective on the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S119–S129.

And Mark Seidenberg, a key neuroscientist cited by the “science of reading” movement, offers a serious caution about the value of brain research: “Our concern is that although reading science is highly relevant to learning in the classroom setting, it does not yet speak to what to teach, when, how, and for whom at a level that is useful for teachers [emphasis added].” [7]

Finally, the ultimate failure of the guide and the “science of reading” movement promoted by The Reading League is the reliance of the “simple view” of reading (SVR) and peppering the guide itself with surprisingly old sources (scroll through for cutting edge scholarship from the 1980s, for example).

About SVR, well, there are a number of problems addressed by leading scholars in the field of literacy. [8]

Notably, Duke and Cartwright explains that the filed of literacy has moved beyond SVR:

The simple view of reading is commonly presented to educators in professional development about the science of reading. The simple view is a useful tool for conveying the undeniable importance—in fact, the necessity—of both decoding and linguistic comprehension for reading. Research in the 35 years since the theory was proposed has revealed additional understandings about reading. In this article, we synthesize research documenting three of these advances: (1) Reading difficulties have a number of causes, not all of which fall under decoding and/or listening comprehension as posited in the simple view; (2) rather than influencing reading solely independently, as conceived in the simple view, decoding and listening comprehension (or in terms more commonly used in reference to the simple view today, word recognition and language comprehension) overlap in important ways; and (3) there are many contributors to reading not named in the simple view, such as active, self-regulatory processes, that play a substantial role in reading. We point to research showing that instruction aligned with these advances can improve students’ reading. We present a theory, which we call the active view of reading, that is an expansion of the simple view and can be used to convey these important advances to current and future educators. We discuss the need to lift up updated theories and models to guide practitioners’ work in supporting students’ reading development in classrooms and interventions.

Duke, N.K., & Cartwright, K.B. (2021). The science of reading progresses: Communicating advances beyond the simple view of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S25–S44.

And, possibly more significantly, Filderman, et al., conclude:

Theoretical models, such as the simple view of reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986), the direct and inferential mediation (DIME) model (Cromley et al., 2010; Cromley & Azevedo, 2007), and the cognitive model (McKenna & Stahl, 2009) inform the constructs and skills that contribute to reading comprehension. The simple view of reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986) describes reading comprehension as the product of decoding and language comprehension. The simple view of reading is often used to underscore the critical importance of decoding on reading comprehension; however, evidence suggests that the relative importance of decoding and language comprehension changes based on students’ level of reading development and text complexity (Lonigan et al., 2018). Cross-sectional and longitudinal studies demonstrate that decoding has the largest influence on reading comprehension for novice readers, whereas language comprehension becomes increasingly important as students’ decoding skills develop and text becomes more complex (e.g., Catts et al., 2005; Gough et al., 1996; Hoover & Gough, 1990; Proctor et al., 2005; Tilstra et al., 2009). However, the simple view of reading does not comprehensively explain all skills that influence reading comprehension, nor does it inform what comprehension instruction requires. [emphasis added]

Filderman, M. J., Austin, C. R., Boucher, A. N., O’Donnell, K., & Swanson, E. A. (2022). A meta-analysis of the effects of reading comprehension interventions on the reading comprehension outcomes of struggling readers in third through 12th grades. Exceptional Children88(2), 163–184.

The Reading League “movement” is not a comprehensive view of reading and how to teach reading; it certainly isn’t settled (or even compelling) science.

Beware The Reading League because it is an advocacy movement that is too often little more than cherry-picking, oversimplification, and a thin veneer for commercial interests in the teaching of reading.

[1] Allington, R.L. (2019, Fall). The hidden push for phonics legislation. Tennessee Literacy Journal, 1(1), 7–20.

See also:

International Literacy Association. (2016). Research advisory: Dyslexia.

Johnston, P., & Scanlon, D. (2021). An examination of dyslexia research and instruction with policy implications. Literacy Research: Theory, Method, and Practice70(1), 107.

[2] Afflerbach, P. (2022). Teaching readers (not reading): Moving beyond skills and strategies to reader-focused instruction. The Guilford Press.

Coles, G. (2019, Summer). Cryonics phonics: Inequality’s little helper. New Politics, 18(3). Retrieved June 6, 2022, from  

Hoffman, J.V., Hikida, M., & Sailors, M. (2020). Contesting science that silences: Amplifying equity, agency, and design research in literacy teacher preparation. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S255–S266.

Johnston, P., & Scanlon, D. (2021). An examination of dyslexia research and instruction with policy implications. Literacy Research: Theory, Method, and Practice70(1), 107.

MacPhee, D., Handsfield, L.J., & Paugh, P. (2021). Conflict or conversation? Media portrayals of the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S145—S155. doi:10.1002/rrq.384

Thomas, P.L. (2022, February 15). Mississippi miracle, mirage, or political lie?: 2019 NAEP reading scores prompt questions, not answers [Web log].

[3] Hoffman, J.V., Hikida, M., & Sailors, M. (2020). Contesting science that silences: Amplifying equity, agency, and design research in literacy teacher preparation. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S255–S266.

[4] Bowers, J.S. (2020).Reconsidering the evidence that systematic phonics is more effective than alternative methods of reading instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 32(2020), 681–705.

Collet, V.S., Penaflorida, J., French, S., Allred, J., Greiner, A., & Chen, J. (2021). Red flags, red herrings, and common ground: An expert study in response to state reading policy. Educational Considerations, 47(1).

Garan, E. M. (2001, March). Beyond smoke and mirrors: A critique of the National Reading Panel report on phonics. Phi Delta Kappan, 82(7), 500–506.

Stephens, D. (2008). The federal government wants me to teach what? A teacher’s guide to the National Reading Panel report. National Council of Teachers of English. Retrieved May 18, 2023, from

Seidenberg, M.S., Cooper Borkenhagen, M., & Kearns, D.M. (2020). Lost in translation? Challenges in connecting reading science and educational practice. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S119–S130.

Shanahan, T. (2005). The National Reading Panel report: Practical advice for teachers. Learning Point Associates. Retrieved June 7, 2022, from Shanahan, T. (2003, April). Research-based reading instruction: Myths about the National Reading Panel report. The Reading Teacher, 56(7), 646–655.

[5] Compton-Lilly, C.F., Mitra, A., Guay, M., & Spence, L.K. (2020). A confluence of complexity: Intersections among reading theory, neuroscience, and observations of young readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S185–S195.

Seidenberg, M. (2018). Language at the speed of sight: How we read, why so many can’t, and what can be done about it. Basic Books.

Seidenberg, M.S., Cooper Borkenhagen, M., & Kearns, D.M. (2020). Lost in translation? Challenges in connecting reading science and educational practice. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S119–S130.

Willingham, D.T. (2017). The reading mind: A cognitive approach to understanding how the mind reads. Jossey-Bass.

Wormeli, R. (n.d.). The problem with, “show me the research thinking.” AMLE. Retrieved April 29, 2022, from

Yaden, D.B., Reinking, D., & Smagorinsky, P. (2021). The trouble with binaries: A perspective on the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S119–S129.

[6] Yaden, D.B., Reinking, D., & Smagorinsky, P. (2021). The trouble with binaries: A perspective on the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S119–S129.

[7] Seidenberg, M.S., Cooper Borkenhagen, M., & Kearns, D.M. (2020). Lost in translation? Challenges in connecting reading science and educational practice. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S121.

See also:

Compton-Lilly, C.F., Mitra, A., Guay, M., & Spence, L.K. (2020). A confluence of complexity: Intersections among reading theory, neuroscience, and observations of young readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S185–S195.

[8] Compton-Lilly, C.F., Mitra, A., Guay, M., & Spence, L.K. (2020). A confluence of complexity: Intersections among reading theory, neuroscience, and observations of young readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S185–S195.

Duke, N.K., & Cartwright, K.B. (2021). The science of reading progresses: Communicating advances beyond the simple view of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S25–S44.

Filderman, M. J., Austin, C. R., Boucher, A. N., O’Donnell, K., & Swanson, E. A. (2022). A meta-analysis of the effects of reading comprehension interventions on the reading comprehension outcomes of struggling readers in third through 12th grades. Exceptional Children88(2), 163–184.

2022: On Fear and Anxiety

Apparently if you are of a certain age—at 60, I am at the end of the Boomer generation—you were convinced by pop culture that one of the great (and even reasonable) fears of being a human was finding yourself trapped in quicksand.

Tarzan Johnny Weismuller GIF - Tarzan Johnny Weismuller Quick Sand -  Discover & Share GIFs

How did I, a redneck living and growing up in the foothills of South Carolina during the 1960s and 1970s, come to fear the ubiquitous dangers of quicksand?

Throughout my childhood, I followed the passions of my mother, who kept black-and-white movies and TV shows on our TVs, including the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films and the Ron Ely Tarzan TV series.

Of course this was nonsense—despite my childhood forages in the woods seeking (and trying to avoid) the dreaded quicksand.

I also inherited from my mother a life-long love of science fiction and a toxic cocktail of anxiety, depression, and hypochondria (the latter three all fueled by the pop culture we were consuming).

Pop culture science fiction created in mid- to late twentieth century was often set in the world we inhabit today; notably, we recently passed the setting of Blade Runner, 2019, and are now days into the setting of Soylent Green:

Soylent Green, released in 1973 and set in 2022, is based on Make Room! Make Room!, a novel published in 1966 but set in 1999.

Of course, in 2019, many lamented that, once again, science had not delivered on the promises of science fiction, the flying car, and artificial intelligence remained far behind the “more human than human” refrain evoked in Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Philp K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

And as far as we know, we are not being fed each other in 2022 because overpopulation has finally threatened the existence of humanity (another fear perpetuated in my childhood).

Since we must resist reading science fiction as prediction—most science fiction is a cautionary tale about any present time and our enduring human weaknesses—I think we should note the brief text of the promotional poster: “It’s the year 2022…People are still the same. They’ll do anything to get what they need. And they need SOYLENT GREEN.”

Humanity hasn’t experienced the sort of scarcity dramatized in the film, but we are in the midst of two years of scarcity and death because of a pandemic. And we are witnessing a truism that is chilling, “People are still the same. They’ll do anything to get what they need.”

And we have learned that “need” can be an ugly, distorting concept.

While the irrational and pervasive fear and anxiety some of us live with as a part of our humanity are often difficult to discern from the fear and anxiety fostered by media, pop culture, and political manipulation, it seems that we as humans need to manage better our irrational fears (quicksand) and fantastical hopes (flying cars) so that we can focus on the real daily threats before us, “People are still the same. They’ll do anything to get what they need.”

No, our food source is not be the Big Reveal of the film:

And it isn’t quicksand lurking around the next corner that may kill us; but the thing to fear is people, each other.

We are a selfish species, and our own worst enemies.

It’s the year 2022.

People are still the same.

That is what is frightening.

The Ends Do Not Justify the Means in the Lives and Education of Children

17 September 2020 turned out to be a day of disinformation about education in the U.S. The White House launched another assault on education (not a surprise), and the International Literacy Association offered (for a fee) “Making Sense of the Science of Reading.”

The latter is disappointing from a powerful and influential professional organization because the “sense” made appears to be quite different than the intent.

Ultimately, as this event revealed, the “science of reading” (SoR) advocacy fails for several key reasons:

  1. The movement is driven by parent advocacy (specifically around dyslexia) and media advocacy. That grounding lacks historical context and expertise in reading, literacy, and special needs.
  2. SoR promotes a simple view of reading and seeks to mandate systematic intensive phonics for all students (regardless of student need).
  3. SoR embraces a simplistic and distorted view of “science” as “settled.”
  4. SoR links reading to policies and practices that lack scientific support and cross ethical lines of allowing the ends to justify the means (for example, nonsense literacy and grade retention linked to high-stakes testing).

Here, I want to focus on how SoR crosses ethical lines in order to justify and misrepresent the very “science” those advocates embrace.

Writing about corporal punishment, Rutherford quotes from Gertrude Williams: “[s]ince the dawn of humanity, children have been treated with incredible cruelty and have little recourse to the law which regarded them as things, not persons” (p. 356).

In my scholarship and public work, corporal punishment and grade retention share something, ironically, with SoR advocacy; I contend that the scientific research base (both decade’s long) on corporal punishment and grade retention , while not “settled,” is overwhelmingly compelling against the use of either with children and students.

And thus, I am deeply alarmed at ILA justifying the use of grade retention as a component of the SoR movement. A speaker at the ILA event and a follow-up email from ILA highlighted a disturbing report from the conservative Manhattan Institute: Do Retention Policies Affect Student Success?

In 1974, talking on education at UC Berkley, James Baldwin confronted the same sort of inequity toward children highlighted by Rutherford on corporal punishment: “And education is a billion-dollar industry and the least important part of that industry is the child.”

With that in mind, the report on grade retention from Perrault and Winters must be interrogated for its lack of peer review (How does one reach for the unscientific to support the scientific?) and its distorted view of teaching and learning along with its antagonism toward children (and teachers).

Perrault and Winters make several key mistakes in how they focus this report and what they fail to identify and consider important.

Decades of high-quality research on grade retention as well as more recent examinations of high-stakes retention similar to what Perrault and Winters address have found the following: grade retention’s impact on raising test scores is mixed, but even when test scores increase, those gains dissipate over time (those gains, then, are a mirage); grade retention is strongly correlated with negative consequences for students, including being separated from their peers and increasing the likelihood of dropping out of school; and grade retention tends to disproportionately impact students of color, high-poverty students, English language learners, and special needs students (contributing, then, to perpetuating inequity).

Perrault and Winters choose to ignore the overwhelming negative consequences, preferring to argue for the ends justifying the means, and instead focus again on a simplistic look at whether or not the “threat” of grade retention increases test scores for students not retained (a circular argument for decreasing grade retention).

Those choices lead to a very disturbing and flawed argument that grade retention, according to Perrault and Winters, improved student learning and teaching (a reductive claim based solely on test scores as an adequate proxy for learning and teaching); their concluding rhetoric is very telling:

Our results, however, suggest that earlier studies, which focus entirely on retained students, substantially understate the benefits of test-based promotion policies on student achievement. The test-score improvements that we find within the third grade for students in Arizona and Florida apply to a much larger group of students than those who were eventually retained by the policies. Indeed, our results show that the threat of retention [emphasis added] improves student academic achievement, thus reducing the need for retention.

SoR advocacy and ILA have made a fatal flaw in citing this report in order to argue that the ends justify the means.

Grade retention is overwhelmingly harmful to students, it does not improve learning and teaching, and it disproportionately harms the most vulnerable students in our schools.

Instead of the report from Perrault and Winters, we should paid heed to Huddleston’s Achievement at Whose Expense? A Literature Review of Test-Based Grade Retention Policies in U.S. Schools:

Short-term gains produced by test-based retention policies fade over time with students again falling behind but with a larger likelihood of dropping out of school. These unintended consequences are most prevalent among ethnic minority and impoverished students. The author concludes by providing alternatives for ending social promotion that do not include grade retention as well as suggestions for further researching the role such policies play in perpetuating class inequities. [from abstract]

The SoR movement has lost its way, depending on reports and anecdotes in order to promote a simplistic view of reading and teaching reading.

As Baldwin noted in the 1970s, education is an industry, and we must be suspicious why so many are compelled to make claims that seem more likely to serve the interests of those who produce and sell reading (phonics) programs and reading tests than the very children we claim to serve.

Shame in the Time of Covid-19

Almost immediately, I noticed some disturbing patterns on social media when the U.S. began directly responding to the Covid-19 pandemic several weeks ago.

The “Covid-19 is a hoax” and “Covid-19 is no worse than the flu” posts on Facebook immediately appeared (and have mostly disappeared), but what is more concerning is that very garbled and oversimplified posts also appeared and continue to flourish.

Ground Zero of garbled and oversimplified social media posts, I think, was arguments over the danger of Covid-19 that focused on death rates (percentage of deaths among those testing positive for the virus). Focusing on this one stat (a complicated data point because it is skewed by if and when people are tested, a serious failure of this pandemic event) greatly misrepresented the why of the unique danger Covid-19 presents.

Most people missed the “novel” terminology (many corona viruses exist, but a “novel,” thus new, version distinguishes Covid-19) and subsequently rushed past the very complex set of reasons this pandemic is not like the flu or other reasons people die daily in the U.S. and throughout the world.

The real threats posed by Covid-19 include the unknown (death rates, who is at-risk, etc.), but also some very significant knowns—likelihood that medical facilities will be overwhelmed, creating greater death rates for Covid-19, the flu, and other situations that normally could be addressed; the complicated and difficult to manage spread of the virus (by asymptomatic people); strategies that work such as “flattening the curve.”

As the U.S. moves into a second month of social distancing, there is more known each day about the virus, and subsequently, there are also more data on how we are managing the virus as well.

Changing information has always been a feature of science and of being evidence-driven. Changing information has always deterred many people from listening to science and evidence-driven policy.

This is a deadly paradox for dealing with a pandemic.

It seems reasonable to acknowledge that science/evidence-denial is incredibly dangerous and inexcusable in a well-informed and so-called advanced society (recognizing that the idealism about the U.S. is not well supported by evidence on lingering inequities).

But a potentially as harmful dynamic is science/evidence evangelism, which is quickly becoming forms of shaming. Two of the most recent forms of shaming concern social distancing and wearing face masks.

As with Covid-19 broadly, the science/evidence on social distancing and face masks is complicated, but slightly different.

Data drawn from cell phones has created a state-by-state and city-by-city ranking of who is practicing social distancing and who isn’t. However, that data exist doesn’t mean that any data set proves what people immediately assume.

Raw movement data by cell phone use doesn’t control for rural versus urban settings, doesn’t control for socioeconomic status of the users (who can and cannot “choose” not to work), and doesn’t control for essential versus nonessential movement.

A common problem in science/evidence is that data can be less valid and credible depending on how that data are interpreted and displayed; also, when messages are made public is incredibly important.

Cell data were immediately used to rank and shame states and cities (thus, this message will likely endure), but once the data and messages gained traction, a more nuanced and less shaming message has emerged:

In cities across America, many lower-income workers continue to move around, while those who make more money are staying home and limiting their exposure to the coronavirus, according to smartphone location data analyzed by The New York Times.

Although people in all income groups are moving less than they did before the crisis, wealthier people are staying home the most, especially during the workweek. Not only that, but in nearly every state, they began doing so days before the poor, giving them a head start on social distancing as the virus spread, according to aggregated data from the location analysis company Cuebiq, which tracks about 15 million cellphone users nationwide daily.

Jennifer Valentino-DeVriesDenise Lu and 

The data offers [sic] real-time evidence of a divide laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic — one in which wealthier people not only have more job security and benefits but also may be better able to avoid becoming sick. The outbreak is so new that the relationship between socioeconomic status and infection rates cannot be determined, but other data, including recent statistics released by public health officials in New York City, suggests [sic] that the coronavirus is hitting low-income neighborhoods the hardest.

The data are less about compliance and more about socioeconomic inequity and the false (idealized) myth of “choice” in the U.S. That choice is less about inherent character in people and more about privilege and anyone’s birth lottery.

Soon, we will have to confront that race/racism also pervades nearly every aspect of this pandemic, as Michael Harriot outlines on Twitter.

Social distance shaming is rooted in misunderstanding and oversimplifying data as well as careless data displays, such as charts and graphs.

More recently, since WHO and the CDC have begun to re-address guidelines on wearing masks, there is more mask shaming, which demonstrates once again that science and evidence are often complicated, but the media and lay people are apt to rush to oversimplifications, especially those who are science/evidence evangelists.

Similar to the initial message about the dangers of Covid-19 examined in the opening, what I understood about wearing face masks as the pandemic spread in the U.S. was not what most people said then or now; whether or not healthy or asymptomatic people (no evidence of exposure) should wear surgical masks or N95 masks was based on supply (low) and ranking who needed those most (medical workers), not about the effectiveness of wearing the masks.

People who interpreted the initial message as “masks do not protect healthy people” (an oversimplification grounded in truth) eventually recognized the contradiction as that sat against “healthcare workers need masks.”

The shift is now occurring whereby officials appear to be suggesting that everyone wear surgical masks, even prompting guides for making them at home. But the original science/evidence is not being honored in this either, especially as people begin to mask shame in the same ways that they are social distance shaming.

Seeking out the evidence on wearing masks is walking into a topic that may be even more complicated than a pandemic itself, but there is one really sobering fact that gets glossed over time and again:

Surgical Masks

Surgical masks (see Image 1) are loose, single use cloth masks designed to provide protection against large droplets, splashes or sprays of bodily or other hazardous fluids. These types of masks experience leakage around the edges when the user inhales, and do not provide a reliable level of respiratory protection against smaller airborne particles. The primary recommended medical function of these types of disposable masks is for infected individuals who want to decrease the risk of transmitting the disease to others in their vicinity, and they are not a substitute for a respirator mask and their primary function is not to protect the wearer of the mask [emphasis added].

Surgical Mask

Since the U.S. has made no effort to address the supply/need element in access to masks, and since the evidence on wearing basic masks is complicated (above), the move to mask shaming may have very negative consequences such as a false sense of security (prompting more socializing and working against social distancing) and stimulating unhealthy behavior (more face touching, reusing unsanitary masks).

Science and evidence are powerful and essential parts of creating public policy and especially of mandated and voluntary human behavior during a health crisis.

Yet, once again, we have ample evidence that neither the fatalism of denial nor the evangelism of shaming is the proper way to navigate science and evidence because science/evidence is more often than not very complicated and always in a state of evolution.

See Also

No need for healthy to wear face masks, says WHO after review

Heymann said masks could create a false sense of security that could end up putting people at greater risk. Even with the mouth and nose fully covered, the virus can still enter through the eyes.

“People think they are protected when they are not,” he said. “Healthcare workers, in addition to the masks, wear visors too, to protect the eyes.”

Another concern is that people may contaminate themselves when they adjust, remove and dispose of their masks.

COMMENTARY: Masks-for-all for COVID-19 not based on sound data

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.