I’ve been an activist for science and education for 13 years. There are a lot of teachers and social activists in my family. Now we have the March for Science coming up in April. I see a lot of discussion about it online by people who look like they’re new to activism. I see a lot of debate about the meaning of scientific political neutrality. I also see a lot of people trying to adopt the March for Science into the Democratic Party or other political groups. So I’ve got a few things to say about this that I hope will help focus people’s efforts in constructive directions instead of the movement bogging down in a bunch of internal disagreement like activist movements so often do.
Education is the act of making the student’s mental model of the world more closely correspond to reality. The success of education is measured by the increase in the student’s ability to succeed at his or her goals.
These are not ideological statements. These are the basic definitions of education that every certified teacher in the US learns in the course of their certification training.
Science, by definition, is politically neutral. Science is a mental tool. It’s a way of using your brain to find reliable information. For information to be reliable it has to be observable, self-consistent, universal, reproducible, and debatable. Following those steps is the definition of science.
Science is politically neutral because it’s a mental tool and tools don’t have political motivation. Science is politically neutral for the same reason shovels, wrenches, and hammers are politically neutral, because they don’t make decisions.
Even though science is politically neutral by definition, that definition only functions in the abstract. People always have goals. Science is the search for reliable information, and reliable information increases people’s effective decision making power. That means it increases their political power.
Education is politically neutral by definition also, because it’s another mental tool. But again the results are always political because it increases people’s decision making power and people always have goals. Also our education system is inherently political because it’s controlled by our government, and our government has political goals.
Since science and education are politically neutral by definition but have inevitable political results, we can be politically neutral while we talk about science education and simultaneously talk about the political results that better science education would lead to. That includes talking about how the results of better science education would conflict with other people’s political goals.
Some people’s political goals are compatible with the process or results of science and/or education. The debate that science depends on, depends on the freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Making education accessible to everyone also depends on freedom of speech and of the press.
The purpose of science is to understand the world and ourselves better. The purpose of science education is to spread that understanding to more people. The purpose of public science education is to spread that understanding to everyone.
Societies get better when their education levels increase. When people understand the world better they can make bigger decisions and succeed at them. A society of educated people can build upon each other’s successes.
People always try to find reliable information and to spread reliable information to family, friends, and potential allies, so that their group of people can be more powerful and more successful at their goals. Since people always try to increase their decision making power this way, it is politically neutral to talk about that inevitability, because we’re not talking about what we believe people should do.
From this politically neutral foundation, we can talk about what good public science education means in the United States in the 21st century.
Climate change is going to be the defining event of the 21st century. The fundamental problem for us is that it threatens to reduce global food productivity while our population is going to grow by about 2 billion more people by 2050. The purpose of public education is to prepare students for the future, and this is the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced.
Meanwhile the internet and global travel are bringing people and ideas together like never before. So we also have more mental resources available to us now than ever before to find solutions to problems.
None of these things were happening in the 1800s when our education system was founded. The big question the founders of our education system were facing was how to train people to work in factories.
Dividing information into subjects is useful to a point. Students have different talents and interests. The ideas in any subject connect to each other and that makes it easy to build up from simple ideas to complicated ideas.
But real life isn’t divided into categories where one body of ideas stops and another body of ideas starts every 45 minutes. Treating education like an assembly line works great for training students to work on assembly lines, or whatever the equivalent of that is for any occupation. But that benefits students who have some combinations of talents, personalities, life experiences, and ambitions, and ignores the potentials of students with other combinations of those things. In an education system where the ideas are divided into categories, students whose best talents are in seeing connections across categories never get to do what they’re best at.
Another obvious way that students get left out of the education system is with Eurocentric history. If you’re a White male you might not have thought of this, but a story of your country that doesn’t seem to include you is a lot less interesting than a story that does include you. A story of your country that starts with your group of people losing for the first four or five centuries and where things only start going well for you in the last few decades is discouraging.
There are famous paintings of the Founding Fathers signing the Declaration of Independence and ratifying the Constitution. How many women are there in those pictures? How many Black people? How many Native Americans? How many poor people?
If you treat the official creation of our country as its defining moments you run into an inescapable conflict between meanings of words versus the structure of storytelling for the purpose of educating children. The defining moments of our country are by definition its most important moments. But was our country defined by its official creation? Or was it defined by the ideals it was founded on finally being put into effect?
In 1776 a group of rich White men declaring their independence from another rich White man was revolutionary. Not just for our country but for the world, because it started a revolution against monarchy and for democracy worldwide.
The problem is that once you decide that the official foundation of our country was its defining moment and that the origin of our country and of democracy is good, you now have to tell the story of our country in a way that leads up to rich White men doing the most important thing ever. By telling the story that way you imply that whatever everyone else did, or whatever happened to them, was less important.
At a school where everyone learns a version of history that leads up to White men doing the most important thing ever, you make the White boys in the school look the most similar to good. If you’re not a White boy not only does a story of our country that makes you seem less important, non-existent, or a villain not encourage you personally as much as it does White boys, you also realize that everyone else is learning that version of history too, and that they’re learning to see you as less important, non-existent, or a villain. A story of our country that leads up to White men doing the most important thing ever makes school seem like a place where White boys are supposed to be and where everyone else is less welcome.
For the purposes of making the history of our country include everyone, the history of the United States began in 1963 with the People’s March on Washington, which led up to President Johnson signing the Equal Rights Act in 1964, which officially made the rights outlined in the Constitution and Bill of Rights apply to everyone. That makes everything that happened before 1963 a story of the things that happened to different groups of people leading up to the Equal Rights Act.
Black people today are where Black history meets the present. Women today are where women’s history meets the present. The same is true for every other group of people that doesn’t yet have a month devoted to their history. The fact that we’re having to do things like this proves that we’re still trying to retrofit groups of people into a version of history that isn’t a story about them.
We’ve all had different paths through American history. Our ancestors saw different things and thought of different ideas. There is no one group of people that had all the best or the most important ideas, so there is no way to focus mainly on the story of one group of people and include how people thought of all the most important ideas.
The problem is that people aren’t distinguishing between facts and morality. The words right and wrong apply both to factually right versus factually wrong and to morally right versus morally wrong. We aren’t born being able to see that difference clearly. We have to learn it. Learning it takes effort. Teaching it takes effort.
If you try to teach history with the least amount of effort, you teach it chronologically by focusing on the biggest decisions that were made and without teaching the difference between factual truth and morality. But by doing that you leave it up to the children to equate the people who did the most important things with the best people, and to judge people according to their similarity to the best people.
Political systems founded on dogma can’t function without violence and the believable threat of violence. If your political system is founded on dogma a lot of people will disagree with it, and then the only way to make your political system continue to function is by physically preventing the people who disagree with it from interfering with it.
This doesn’t just happen to governments. It happens in any situation where a group of people have conflicting goals and have to reach a conclusion within a limited time. It doesn’t matter why the dogma exists. Whether it’s caused by propaganda or if it was caused by ignorance that resulted from an education system that didn’t take into account basic facts of how human psychology make people form ideas, you still have a situation where a group of people doesn’t have enough information to work with to peacefully resolve their conflicting interests in the time they have.
If you were walking down the street having an ordinary day and suddenly 17 police came swarming around you, put their hands on their guns, and acted like they were mad about something, you might be so surprised and afraid that you wouldn’t be able to think very clearly. When you reach in your pocket for your ID, you might reach in the wrong pocket and pull out something that wasn’t your wallet but wasn’t a weapon either. Or you might think they thought you were selling drugs so the first thing you reach for is your pill bottle to show them it’s your prescription.
In a situation like this the Constitution doesn’t mean anything. Nobody is thinking about who got elected last year or that the three branches of government are called the legislative, the executive, and the judicial. In a situation like this, the government are the people with the guns who are telling you what to do, who can kill you in one second if you don’t do what they say.
If you belong to a group of people whose history people are trying to retrofit into our history of why rich White men signed the Declaration of Independence, you can’t depend on the police to have a very good understanding of why your group of people are the way they are.
They might understand it, but you can’t be sure of that. If you talk seriously about ideas that are common sense to you but the police have never heard of before or haven’t heard much about and don’t think are very important, you can seem crazy to them, and therefore dangerous. If you seem like a threat to them and you pull something out of your pocket that doesn’t look like a wallet, they might not be thinking very clearly either and assume it’s a gun.
If the police expected you to freeze and do exactly what they told you to do, but you’re frustrated with police in general because this is the tenth time you’ve been stopped by the police this year, so you lose your temper and shout, “What??? I’m not doing anything wrong!” you’ll seem to them to be defying their authority for reasons that don’t make any sense to them. And if you feel resentful about the fact that for 245 years it was government policy to lock your group of people up and sentence to them to hard labor for the rest of their lives even though they hadn’t committed any crimes, while some of the rich White men who were making that happen were taking all the credit for doing all the best and most important things in history, and you’re resentful about the fact that most people try to ignore that as much as possible, and you’re resentful of the fact that you had to learn most of that stuff outside of school, and you’re resentful of the fact that the police who stop you all the time expect you to do whatever they say and can’t understand why you have a problem with that, and you’re proud of who you are anyway and you try to assert yourself to make the police respect you more, to the police all you might look like is that you’re resisting their authority way more than they think you should. That makes you look like a threat, and that can make the thing you pull out of your pocket that doesn’t look like a wallet look to them like a gun.
Now police have sensitivity training, which has a lot in common with Black history month, in that it’s another attempt to help clean up the mess that’s caused by our story of why rich White men did the best things ever.
This basic problem of people not learning the difference between facts and morality has reached comical levels now that the Trump administration has started reporting “alternative facts”. These lies they tell are an attempt to motivate people to do what they feel the people should do. By this reasoning, the facts are whatever the government need the facts to be to get people to do what they feel is right. The government did that a lot in the Soviet Union.
Good science education would help solve all of this. Science has come a long way in 400 years. Science began with physics, which at the time was just one of many thing people thought about. Since then a lot more fields of science have been pioneered and discoveries have been made that connect branches of science to each other and to other fields of study. Every subject in school is a body of interconnected ideas, at the foundation of which is reliable information. Science is the search for reliable information, so it’s the one subject that links all the other subjects.
Science depends on math, so that’s an easy connection to make. English class involves a lot of psychology in how we use words to connect ideas, and through stories of people making different decisions in different situations. Foreign language classes show us other ways people connect ideas. Art classes show us a lot about the psychology of perception. Physical education depends on biology. And history class is made up of stories about how people have made different decisions in different situations, which leads to psychology, sociology, anthropology,archeology, and environmental science.
Out of this combined body of information a narrative emerges that includes everyone. Not just from science but also from history, literature, poetry, art, music, and anything else people do to tell their stories.
That story continues beyond school. Every job depends on people producing reliable results, which means it depends on people using reliable information. No matter what jobs people get after they finish school, or whatever else they do in life that depends on reliable information, science is at the foundation of it all.
As long as our education system is treated like an assembly line, and science is treated like just one of many things people think about, we make science seem like just another job skill instead of as a set of unifying concepts. Teaching science as a job skill makes it seem like it doesn’t really mean anything to most people, because most people don’t want careers as scientists.
An education system that was based on the idea that we should learn how to be good at living the lives we’re living now, instead of on the idea that we should learn how to work in factories or that we should prove that we’re good by trying to prove we’re similar to rich White men who lived hundreds of years ago, would open up a lot of new possibilities. Emotional intelligence and de-escalating conflicts are valuable skills that don’t fit into any traditional subjects. For middle school and high school to teach about differences between male and female psychology and communication would lead to better romantic relationships for many of us, if not most of us, and would reduce domestic violence in the long run as those students grew up, got married, and were better at working through conflicts without anyone losing their temper.
People have debated a lot about if or how religion is compatible with science. People have been arguing about religion for so long that a lot of people don’t notice a bigger pattern. Every religion has the same two basic interpretations. A religion can be a source of inspiration for the people who believe in it and the foundation of their community. Or it can be their reason for feeling like they’re better than everyone else. People in the first group are using the ideas they know about as their starting point for seeing the world, and they want their children to grow up to be healthy and get good educations and good jobs, so they generally don’t have a problem with science. Those people also generally believe that the things they have in common with people outside their religions are more important than their differences. The fundamentalists who feel like their religion somehow makes them better than everyone else are willing to disbelieve facts by any amount necessary to prove their religion is true.
From this we can say there are two basic religions in the world. Do you believe in living your life? Or do you believe in feeling like you’re better than everyone else? Science is compatible with the first one and isn’t compatible with the second.
Science also shows us how human psychology creates limitations on science and science education. Every scientist who makes a discovery that changes how people see the world makes it as an adult. That means they grew up without knowing about it, surrounded by other people who didn’t know about it. Now as adults with careers in science they have to be willing to debate their discoveries, and the people their age whose approval their careers depend on also feel like their scientific discoveries are new and therefore are supposed to be open to debate. But human psychology makes people internalize ideas differently as children than we do as adults.
If you’re born after a scientific discovery has been made, andyou grow up in a world where people already know about it and the evidence is all around you, it makes the idea seem real to you in a way it never will to the people who were adults when the discovery was made.
If we leave science in the hands of scientists and science teachers, the normalization of scientific ideas into society can only advance generation by generation as scientists who still talk about their discoveries as discoveries retire and are replaced by younger scientists who talk about those discoveries as normal ideas. When the global environmental crisis was discovered back in the 1960s we still had generations left before the effects of the problem caught up with us, so it seemed like we still had time to use that traditional approach to the advancement of science.
Now in the 21st century climate change is upon us and that window of opportunity is gone. We don’t have any more generations to spend on changing public perception. That means that making science advance on a schedule that’s relevant to solving the problem depends on our doing something else. That means the advance of science depends now more than ever on student and community involvement, so people can start acting upon facts that the heads of science departments still think of as new discoveries.
Making science advance on that tightened schedule in a way that’s consistent with the long-term goals of science depends, once again, on more effective science education for everyone. As the effects of the environmental crisis catch up with us and solving them becomes more urgent, people are going to try to put solutions into effect more quickly, whether scientists are involved or not. You can’t solve a problem without understanding what’s causing it, but you can get elected to government by throwing around scientific catch phrases as if you do understand what they mean. If scientists don’t put actionable information into the hands of their students in the 21st century, a lot of decisions that depend on science are going to be made by politicians who say a lot of science-sounding words.
A lot of people say that better science education depends on better funding. Since teachers in general, more than anyone else, hold the keys to our future, they should be paid well in order to attract talent. Beyond that basic concept funding education is a decision about how to spend tax dollars, which affects a lot of people and which needs to be an ongoing discussion.
The problems that face us in the 21st century are monumental. They’re being caused largely by decisions that were made before anyone in their 20s right now was old enough to vote, and that our children who aren’t yet old enough to vote are going to grow up being affected by. The most effective way to find a solution to any big problem that affects a lot of people depends on getting as many people as possible to understand the problem as well as possible. Science education brings together scientists, teachers, students, their parents, and other people from their communities.
There are enough people involved that we can do a lot if we work together, regardless of whether or not the Secretary of Education understands any of it.
Since she isn’t going to give us the funding we want, we’ll have to figure out how to use what we do have to get to where we’re trying to go. It’ll be a lot of work, but these things always are. If we all know that our own futures depend on science education and the government isn’t willing to pay for it, then it’s going to depend, among other things, on scientists and teachers volunteering their time.
Science is politically neutral because tools don’t have goals. Science education isn’t politically neutral because the belief that people should learn about science is a belief about what people should do now, and it will inevitably affect the decisions people make in the future.
When your government starts treating you like an enemy your survival, whether physically or professionally, becomes a political decision. Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth all escaped from slavery, which means they all broke the law. Civil Rights protesters went to jail for sitting in at lunch counters because they broke the law. When Anne Frank and her family decided to hide out in the attic instead of getting on the train to the concentration camp, they broke the law.
All of these people opposed their governments for the sake of political equality because all of them broke the law by doing things that other people in their societies were allowed to do. That could also be called political neutrality, because they opposed laws that the government used to try to make decisions about them that it wasn’t making about other people.
A lot of people think that comparisons between the United States and Nazi Germany are a gross exaggeration. But we are giving off a quarter of the greenhouse gasses that are causing climate change, and a breakdown of world food production would kill millions, if not billions, of people.
This kind of thing has been done before. Albert Einstein was a scientist and a German Jew. He made the political decision to warn President Roosevelt that his E=mc2 equation could be used to build atomic bombs, which meant the Nazis were going to try to build them. I’ve never heard of any scientists today who condemn him for that.
To a government that sees science as a threat, there is no scientific political neutrality. Political inaction in a politically driven system isn’t political neutrality, it’s political passivity.
In a situation that will have big political results no matter what happens, there is no political neutrality. The choice to do nothing is itself a political choice. To uphold the ideals of political neutrality as well as possible, political action must be taken that leads to political neutrality. That means talking about science not in that abstract and not as a job skill, but doing whatever is necessary to communicate to people all the ways science has the potential to make people’s lives better, in a world full of people who are all trying to make their lives better.