“Learning science helps people make good decisions.”
This claim is often made to justify the teaching of science.
But is it true? Where’s the evidence?
The assumption is that learning scientific facts and the scientific method will equip people to make good decisions.
But learning science is very different to learning to use science to make decisions.
A very important part of decision-making is justification. Justification is a little bit like an argument with yourself in your head [point to head].
The values and beliefs you hold about how the world works and your place within it are central to justifying your decisions. Those who value science use science to make decisions. If science isn’t valued, it isn’t used.
So the question becomes: how can we teach students the value of science?
Recently, researchers in science education have been examining and advocating for the practice of argumentation in science classrooms. Argumentation is a regular part of the scientific process; part of a scientist’s job is to present and defend her claims to her peers. Peer review serves to expose all the inconsistencies between the claims and the evidence.
In the classroom, argumentation is similar to debating, but informal; more of a conversation. When students participate in argumentation, they’re required to justify their positions with evidence and reasoning, or change their mind when there is little evidence and reasoning to support their stance.
For my thesis project, I have been investigating the link between learning to use science in argumentation and decision-making.
I looked at how students made decisions before and after taking a science course, with and without participating in argumentation.
My students argued about vegetarianism, vaccines, vitamins, sunscreen, homeopathy and learning styles. Students made connections between what they were learning in the course and what they were reading about these issues. They sought evidence to support and oppose various stances. They called each other out on errors in reasoning, assumptions and biases. Sometimes they changed their minds!
Did this group of students leave the course with better skills for making decisions?
There is a mountain of data yet to be analysed, but this small piece of the puzzle is encouraging: preliminary analysis indicates that students were more likely to ask for more information before making a decision, and selected better quality evidence to support their decisions.
In the coming months, I will analyse my mountain of data to determine if, how, and why learning to use science in argumentation helps people to make better decisions.
Many many many thanks to James Hutson who supplied the beautiful design for my single presentation slide. It’s so good, it’s for sale! You can buy it on a t-shirt, stickers, a tote bag, etc from Red Bubble, and support James and his company, Bridge 8, a foresight agency that fosters critical, creative and compassionate thinking.