Can we STEM the Tide of Alternative Facts?
February 8, 2017
During Senate hearings Tuesday on DeVos’s nomination, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) asked point-blank if a DeVos-led Department of Education would side with students or with purveyors of junk science. She evaded answering — but conspicuously used the “critical thinking” catchphrase beloved by creationists and climate change deniers alike.
Others in the Trump administration have been more outspoken challengers of climate change and evolution.
During the campaign for president, Donald Trump repeatedly called climate change a hoax. His recent claim that “no one really knows” is a scant improvement.
While evolution was not as much in the headlines during the campaign, Vice President-elect Mike Pence once saw fit to denounce evolution on the floor of the House of Representatives.
The federal Department of Education has little power over what teachers are required to cover. Science education standards are set at the state level. Evolution is generally integrated into current standards and textbooks, and climate change — a relative newcomer to American science education — is increasingly included in them.
But just including evolution and climate change in standards isn’t enough. Teachers must feel confident when presenting the material in their classrooms. Unfortunately, they often don’t. Only 54 percent of American science teachers teach climate change forthrightly, while only 28 percent do the same for evolution.
Besides running the library, Hagen said, she teaches a class called “digital life.” She meets with fifth-graders twice a week and with eighth-graders once a week. The classes are a mix of technology and information-literacy skills, but since the presidential election, she’s increased the focus on the latter.
“It was because of all of the buzz (about fake news). You can look at the Google analytics, and the search for ‘fake news’ was unprecedented.“ she said. “It’s our job as teachers to address what’s going on in the world.”
One Monday morning, her eighth-graders took a group quiz in which they were asked to identify different kinds of information — advertising, publicity, propaganda, news, opinion pieces. They worked on their laptops choosing from multiple options, and their choices showed up on a big screen at the front of the classroom. There was discussion after each question, especially when not everyone got the answer right.
Hagen introduced the new focus to students by showing them the results of a Stanford History Education Group study in which students from college, high school and middle school were tested on their understanding of various types of information.
Most middle-school students were able to distinguish advertisements from news stories, but more than 80 percent confused native advertisements with news stories. Native advertisements are designed to look like news stories, but they carry a label that sets them apart, usually “sponsored content.” That wasn’t enough.
There is a great need for more education in the critical-thinking skills that are part of information literacy.
It’s looking as if 2017 could become the year when the anti-vaccination movement gains ascendancy in the United States and we begin to see a reversal of several decades in steady public health gains. The first blow will be measles outbreaks in America.
Measles is one of the most contagious and most lethal of all human diseases. A single person infected with the virus can infect more than a dozen unvaccinated people, typically infants too young to have received their first measles shot. Such high levels of transmissibility mean that when the percentage of children in a community who have received the measles vaccine falls below 90 percent to 95 percent, we can start to see major outbreaks, as in the 1950s when four million Americans a year were infected and 450 died. Worldwide, measles still kills around 100,000 children each year.
The myth that vaccines like the one that prevents measles are connected to autism has persisted despite rock-solid proof to the contrary. Donald Trumphas given credence to such views in tweets and during a Republican debate, but as president he has said nothing to support vaccination opponents, so there is reason to hope that his views are changing.
However, a leading proponent of the link between vaccines and autism said he recently met with the president to discuss the creation of a presidential commission to investigate vaccine safety. Such a commission would be a throwback to the 2000s, when Representative Dan Burton of Indiana held fruitless hearings and conducted investigations on this topic. And a documentary alleging a conspiracy at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe,” has recently been shown around the country.
As a scientist leading global efforts to develop vaccines for neglected poverty-related diseases like schistosomiasis and Chagas’ disease, and as the dad of an adult daughter with autism and other disabilities, I’m worried that our nation’s health will soon be threatened because we have not stood up to the pseudoscience and fake conspiracy claims of this movement.