What is the right way to teach science?

3 minute read

Are we taught the wrong things about science?

I had this thought while watching a YouTube video by the science communicator Dr. Simon Clark. In it, he summarized some insights after reading the top 100 science papers of all time. But it wasn’t the 100 papers that piqued my interest, but rather Dr. Clark’s explanation of something that has become so fundamental to my academic career: citations.

These 100 papers are ranked by citation count. While the symbolic and practical meaning of citations is clear to me, thanks to my career & research, it is not so obvious to the average person. Dr. Clark correctly recognized as much, and spent the first seconds of his video explaining what citations are and what they signify.

Citations are an everyday feature of science that the public likely knows nothing about except for some long-lost knowledge of MLA in school. In fact, the public knows very little about the everyday features of science—my parents couldn’t describe the first thing about what I do all day, let alone anything about academic publishing, tenure, grant funding, or research design. In my experience, many don’t even realize that professors do research at all, instead imagining them as overpaid teachers.

No one needs to know the day-to-day minutia of most professions. Not many people need to know what kinds of bookkeeping software accountants use, or the exact process of repairing a pothole in a highway. Yet science is unique, because to critically engage with science—as we should encourage in an educated and democratic society—requires also understanding its minutia.

Scientists routinely assess the credibility of a study, by means of where it is published, if it was later retracted or corrected, if the authors are from reputable institutions, whether its funding might produce conflicts of interest, and so much more. How is the average person, even a well educated one, expected to evaluate a study when they have never been taught about the day-to-day work of how science gets done? Even something as straightforward as a paper’s citation count, a deeply flawed yet still essential feature of quality and acceptance, is alien to most people.

I am sympathetic to Paul Feyerabend’s warnings of a society where scientists act as priests speaking inarguable truths from a position of authority. Yet at the same time, as the problems our society face grow in number and complexity, and scientific knowledge becomes more essential to solving them, some amount of authority and respect for science is necessary. What I want is for people to have the tools and background to critically engage with science and scientific knowledge, and this includes knowing about things like citations.

In my ideal society, science education in school would focus much less on the “scientific method” and rote memory of facts, and more about the work of what scientists themselves do, including things like academic publishing, devising a research program and writing a study, and what is a citation. And I believe that by learning to engage with scientific knowledge as scientists themselves do, that people will also gain a healthy respect for the scientific process that sits at the heart of so many important problems that we face as a society. I want to thank Dr. Simon Clark for the valuable work he has been doing to bring this kind of understanding to people.