The Importance of Science and Scientific Thinking in Education

Last year I had the privilege of attending an event promoted by the Federal University of Goiás (UFG) with two great references of Brazilian science: Luiz Davidovich, president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences; and Ricardo Galvão, former president of the National Institute for Space Research and former director of the Brazilian Center for Physical Research. This event made me think about how fundamental the role of science and scientific thinking is for future generations if we want to avoid the things we’re witnessing today. As teachers and educators, should we engage with this debate or should we “stick to our subject” without judging or questioning our students’ assumptions about things related to science? This post challenges the view of sticking to our subject based on the scenario depicted in these two scientists’ talks.

Ricardo Galvão and Luiz Davidovich. Photo retrieved from abc.org.br

After a brief introduction by the dean and the vice-dean of UFG Graduate Program, both emphasizing the tragedy that plagues Brazilian universities promoted by a government with no commitment to technological research and development, we were delighted with a coherent, passionate, and assertive presentation by Davidovich filled with statistical data, as expected by every good scientist . His slides explored the side that we don’t see so often in non-scientific media.

In short, Davidovich emphasized the predominance of postgraduate courses from public universities in the national scientific production that has global repercussion. He showed the natural symbiotic relationship between the public university and strategic industrial sectors, with examples such as Petrobrás (energy), Embrapa (food) and Embraer (aviation). Luiz emphasized the great challenges of research in the country, with emphasis on the lack and irregularity of funding, obsolete programs, internal resistance and high bureaucratization, little incentive for quality publication, prioritizing quantity, in addition to the “massacre” of young researchers, overloaded with a large number of classes.

Davidovich’s central message was that Brazil is not as bad in terms of science as many seem to believe and that despite the remarkable dismantling in the last 5 years, past governments have also not prioritized the role of the university as much as they should. However, he did not fail to remember that the quality university is the product of a quality educational system and that many changes must occur at the base.

Ricardo Galvão, who recently gained fame for standing against Environment Minister Ricardo Salles in an assertive way in relation to the minister’s accusations that the data produced by the National Space Research Institute were wrong or deceitful, complemented the Davidovich’s speech. The repercussion of this clash earned Galvão the nickname “the old man who is putting out the fire in the Amazon” by an 8-year-old child on the subway.

Ricardo Galvão started his presentation with a slide of an article showing the photo of Ricardo Salles and on the next slide he showed the great problem and danger that we have ahead of us: President Bolsonaro, his pseudo-scientific intellectual guru Olavo de Carvalho and Chancellor Ernesto Araújo. This group, and many other ministers appointed by the president, took conspiracy theories, obscurantism and science denialism as the tone of our national development policy. They deny that the Earth is round, that global warming exists, that COVID-19 is as serious as it is and other debates that have already been settled in the scientific community. They make decisions and justify them based on personal opinion often driven by a paranoid fear of a globalist threat from communists and the political left in general.

To wrap up, Luiz brought Henri Poincaré’s quote that the scientist is moved not by the usefulness of their findings, but because nature is beautiful and pleasant to study. Galvão brought Adolf Hitler’s response to Max Planck when he tried to prevent the fuhrer from firing scientists for political-ideological reasons. Hitler said he would not change his position and that if the dismissal of Jewish scientists meant the end of German science, then they would live without science for a few years.

To hear from these authorities that dialogue is difficult, often impossible with some sectors of the new government and that this has never happened before in their profession, is worrying and frightening. However, there is hope. Dialogue may fail when those who defend science hit back with fury and humiliation. And we are all guilty of that. We hit back hard because of the many absurds we see often. But that makes our listeners go into defense mode. Instead of doing that with hatred, let us try to educate or at least make them reflect. The scientific method welcomes debate and criticism with open arms and its main purpose is to clarify how things work and how they could work better.

As for science deniers who deliberately propagate fake news and pseudoscience, I suppose our best tool against them is an educated population. A generation of students who are educated in the scientific method and understand how important science has been. We also need students to become ethical citizens so that they understand the consequences of using science to do good or evil. The way I see it, we must not remain neutral about things that go against the current scientific knowledge, but we must be careful not to discourage this debate or even shut off our students’ voice and lose them forever. We need to ignite their passion for science.

It’s said that the famous physicist Richard Feynman once lectured in Brazil to a group of enthusiastic students and soon realized that they were brilliant to remember concepts. They could cite definitions verbatim. But when Feynman asked them to apply their deductive reasoning based on these concepts to solve a logical problem, they failed. This anecdote shows us that for the better part of Brazilian education, we’ve been teaching about science and not through science and with it. It may also have to do with the idea that promoting debates where we need to present our ideas based on logic and evidence-based arguments is not something we see in many Brazilian educational settings.

I know what you might be thinking. I’m a language teacher and have absolutely nothing to do with this. My job is to teach language and not challenge my students’ view on things no matter how absurd they are. I hear you and I feel you. And to be fair I have changed my mind a million times about this topic (I might still change my mind). What I do think nowadays is that we have a moral duty as citizens and educators to at least fight off fake news and pseudoscience. We might not always know what science says about this or that, that’s true. But I fail to see how encouraging students or simply allowing them to demoralize or question the scientific community without evidence will do us any good.

What can we do then? Here are some ideas:

  • 1- Use inquiry-based learning at school and promote scientific knowledge in practical ways (use labs, relate it to students’ daily lives and community problems, etc)
  • 2- Ignite students’ love for science. It’s about discovery and curiosity. Not about memorizing definition. In high school when we learned about waves, light and propagation, not once did we go to a lab to see that with our own eyes. We basically had to memorize formulas and I never really saw the application of what I was doing for my real life.
  • 3- Fight off fake news and pseudoscience, but remember to have patience and empathy with those who propagate them. The idea is to keep the dialogue open and not close it so that they won’t have the chance to rethink their beliefs;
  • 4- Be enthusiastic about science yourself. Tell them about the life of famous scientists and artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci or Madame Curie;
  • 5- Acknowledge the immeasurable contribution of science to society. Remind students that science is not just done in a lab, but it is a process that involves all levels of education, particularly universities;
  • 6- Vote for representatives who defend these ideals. Do not give power to people who deny the scientific method. These people can undermine years of scientific progress and affect the minds of poorly educated masses and people driven by their cognitive biases in general;

At the end, Davidovich summed up what I think:

I have always managed to have a conversation with left, center and right-wing governments, but when the logic is distorted, incomprehensible, there is no dialogue

I hope that we continue to have curiosity and passion to discover new things and that we try to understand that science, as a whole, has a direct impact on the economy and human lives. Priority areas must exist, no doubt. But where would we be today if Rousseau had not written the Social Contract? Or if Freud had not given birth to psychoanalysis, which, despite theories considered to be pseudoscientific, brought us to an era in which therapy is normal? Imagine if at the turn of the 19th century, so many scientists had not presented us with quantum theory? Where would we be in relation to computing, space exploration in search of an explanation of our origins? If it weren’t for Einstein and his Theory of Relativity, today we wouldn’t have Uber, which works thanks to GPS that has correction calculations that only became possible because someone dreamed, was curious and researched.

When scientific breakthroughs fall in the wrong hands, we may experience terrible tragedies and setbacks, that is true. We’ve seen it happen before and we’ll see it again. That’s why we need to have ethical principles and lots of caution and debate. Nonetheless, a world without science would send us back to the Dark Ages where dogma is the rule and nothing is up for debate. That’s a thousand times scarier and more dangerous to me.

As Carl Sagan once said:

Science is not perfect. It’s often misused; it’s only a tool, but it’s the best tool we have. Self-correcting, ever changing, applicable to everything: with this tool, we vanquish the impossible

Carl Sagan

Get inspired in Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s letter to Brazil to bring science into our educational system and celebrate the amazing feats of our people here. He ends his letter with:

Countries that struggle the most in the world tend to be those with low education levels and an absence of STEM in their culture. You have the resources and the legacy to lead all of Latin America, if not the world, in what a country of tomorrow should be—in what a country of tomorrow should aspire to. If you embrace and bolster your STEM industries—and the entire tech sector—then the dreams of students in the educational pipeline will have no limit, as they enter a world where rockets are what fuel people’s ambitions as they exit the cave door.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson

My only suggestion to Neil is that he adds the A where it belongs. Not only STEM. We need STEAM and research in arts to change our future, just like Da Vinci did. After all, the Earth without art is just EH.

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