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Science, the Rebel Educator: I

"For what a man more likes to be true, he more readily believes," wrote Francis Bacon (1561–1626). We researchers resist this natural tendency; we do not try to "discover" or "scientifically prove" preconceived notions, to find what we like to be true. We discount gossip. We disdain common myth. We seek evidence, hard evidence. When doing science we try to avoid the influence of faith-based dogma.

Yet all of us who participate in science must share one common faith. We believe that the material-energetic world is knowable, at least in large part, by the concerted activity of research: exploration, reconnaissance, observation, logic, detailed study that includes careful measurement against standards. In short, we uphold the Sigma Xi values that lead us all, independent of wealth, creed or eye color, to be "companions in zealous research" who "encourage original investigation in science, pure and applied."

We in Sigma Xi are members of one of many strong science-promoting organizations based in, supposedly, the richest and freest country in the world. Then why, for example, do 15-year-old U.S. students rank 22nd of 40 countries in science literacy, according to the latest survey of student performance by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development? This, the first of three related "From the President" messages, presents my take on the national problem of inadequate science education.

American students' persistent low scores on international tests and faltering interest in science and mathematics reflect, in my opinion, a contradiction in our national psyche, a deep cultural divide. Intellectual truths in this country are often sacrificed to what people "like to be true" and thus "more readily believe." What sells to the multitudes is what people like. Our culture puts a premium on being liked; we tend to seek and value popularity over truth, especially abstract scientific truth.

James Baldwin (1924-1987), the outspoken Harlem, New York novelist and essayist who resided in Paris most of his career, claimed that life in the U.S.A. was "terrifying for black people." In a 1984 interview with Kay Bonetti for the American Audio Prose Library, he described America as "a conglomeration of many cultures, none of them really respected ... [all] at the mercy of what this country imagines itself to be ... a collection of pragmatic, pious businessmen.... the key to American life seems to me to be involved with their stubborn, manic refusal to accept their history."

Baldwin was referring to America's legacy of slavery, but there is a corollary to his statement with importance for science. Science faces a vaster, more stubborn mania: the refusal to accept natural history. The affliction of history-ignorance promulgates likable, arbitrary, pragmatic "facts." Memorizable trivia and arguments from authority substitute for logical narrative and hard evidence. A stubborn, manic refusal to accept evolutionary history cripples our national capacity to teach, learn and do science.

The scientist studies nature in nature, and it is from nature that authentic scientists take dictation. Skepticism, particularly toward arrogant authorities, and disclosure of their distortions, omissions and half-truths, is mandatory for the health of science and growth of its knowledge. To challenge unstated assumptions, to resist arguments from authority, to detect and reject institutionalized bias, all are intrinsic to the scientific enterprise. In peer-reviewed professional journals, outlandish claims, overgeneralizations and personal experience don't count. Having heard something on the grapevine of the day—newspaper, telephone, lecture hall, television, Internet—does not constitute authority. Acceptable authority, on which our scientific lives depend, is limited to the primary scientific research literature.

Nothing I say here is radical. Popular, palatable views of the world and how it came to be do not constitute science or truth. But decent science education requires that we share the truth we find—whether or not we like it.

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