Academic journal article The Science Teacher

JUST Say NO!: Teaching Students to Resist Scientific Misinformation

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

JUST Say NO!: Teaching Students to Resist Scientific Misinformation

Article excerpt

The United States is currently experiencing its most severe measles outbreak in decades, driven in part by parents' belief that vaccines cause autism. That harmful misinformation is contrary to scientific evidence (DeStefano et al. 2013). The CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world's largest multidisciplinary scientific society, is concerned that fewer and fewer members of the public understand "the very idea that science is a special way for separating truth from falsehood" (Holt 2017). The proliferation of misinformation has become so serious that, as an editorial in The Science Teacher noted, "evidence-based reasoning seems under assault" (Metz 2017).

In response, we have developed and tested a free, research-based, one-week curriculum unit for use in grades 6-12. In the sections below we expand upon the reasons for creating the unit, describe the materials, discuss the pilot test conducted in six schools, and then indicate how the unit aligns with national education standards. This unit is aligned with both the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards.

Why teach students to judge the quality of "scientific" information?

As the use of social media increases--45% of teens say they are online "almost constantly" (Pew Research Center 2018)--misinformation spreads faster and further. Even as schools continue to provide accurate information to young people, science teachers now also need to teach students how to judge the quality of supposedly "scientific" information they encounter online, on TV or radio, from friends, or anywhere.

Indeed, many state policymakers are now emphasizing the responsibility of schools to teach students to separate information from misinformation. For example, in 2016 and 2017, the governor of Washington signed bills (SB 6273 and SB 5449), which focused on providing media literacy and digital citizenship education in schools. Schools usually address such topics in a social science or library class. However, reading the newspaper makes it obvious that scientific misinformation is a serious problem that requires teachers' attention. Moreover, science--with its accepted methods for verifying new claims and building common knowledge--provides an ideal domain for honing the skills needed to be a critical consumer of information.

Moreover, social science research shows it is possible to "inoculate" people against misinformation; in other words, teachers can use experimentally tested approaches that will help students learn to separate science fact from science fiction (e.g., Cook, Lewandowsky, and Ecker 2017). The unit we describe here is based on such research. To engage students, we make use of short videos specially produced by PBS NOVA staff at WGBH, examples of colorful false and misleading advertising (a genre all too familiar to students), and the fact that young people don't want to be fooled by lies or other misinformation (see teacher guide; "On the web").

There are several other reasons it has become important to teach students how to judge the accuracy of allegedly "scientific" claims. For one thing, research shows that some people, such as climate change skeptics, accept scientific misinformation not from a lack of knowledge but from cultural polarization (Kahan et al. 2012; Kahne and Bowyer 2017). Furthermore, there are too many false "scientific" claims for teachers to focus separately on each of them. More than ever, then, students need to be taught how to think critically about dubious claims.

In addition, studies confirm what many teachers already know: students typically are not good at searching for reliable information online. Many students are unaccustomed to questioning the first online resource they encounter, even if it is wholly unreliable. As one research group at Stanford reported after working with hundreds of students, "Overall, young people's ability to reason about the information on the internet can be summed up in one word: bleak" (Stanford History Education Research Group 2016). …

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