We have experienced a tumultuous and interesting year in science. Who would have thought that “fact-based journalism” would enter our lexicon; hasn't journalism always been founded on reporting facts? Just as with the search for truth in journalism, science endeavors to discover new facts and processes, and reach conclusions that together illuminate how the world works. Unfortunately, media outlets are replete with manufactured controversies about whether climate change is real, whether foods derived from GMO crops are safe, and whether alternatives to evolution should be taught in schools. Worldwide, thousands of scientists, educators, and informed citizens marched this past April to bring support and attention to science. Two recent essays in this very journal have taken up the theme that science is worthy but under attack.
The issue before us now is: What's next? What should we do as biology educators and particularly as NABT members? I suggest that we band together to promote and celebrate science in the public arena, and by doing so to gently provide soundly reasoned alternatives to nonsensical positions.
We must recognize that the science of biology is dynamic and that scientific principles either stand the test of time or are replaced due to new knowledge. For example, when Darwin and Wallace proposed natural selection as part of the mechanism for evolution, there was but little evidence to support their claim. The fossil record was sparse and genetics was nonexistent. That changed; research during the past nearly 160 years have provided so much evidence for evolution that there is little likelihood that the overall theory of organic evolution may be overturned.
In 1948, Paul Müller won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on DDT; the pesticide was effectively used to control insect-vectored malaria and endemic typhus and so was widely viewed as beneficial. However, just 35 years later, DDT's agricultural uses were banned in the United States due to the new scientific understanding that it passed unmodified through the food chain and accumulated at the top of the food chain, resulting in unacceptable risks. In contrast, consider the popular notion that consumption of high-cholesterol foods would lead to high serum cholesterol levels and elevated risk of coronary heart disease. Years of research revealed that individuals vary in their response to dietary cholesterol, and only those whose cholesterol synthesis is further stimulated (rather than downregulated) by cholesterol consumption are at elevated risk of coronary heart disease. The newer understanding is more accurate but nuanced, a notion often lost in the popular media.
These examples of the scientific process may lead to public confusion, apprehension, and even consternation. Individuals who were unnecessarily admonished to eat fewer eggs and less bacon, or told that the insecticide that they once used is now known to poison the environment can be expected to be suspicious of science. Rather than blaming the earlier science for being incorrect on occasion, we should celebrate the self-correcting nature of science. And we must find ways to communicate this character of science to everyone. There are strong emotional reactions to issues such as food derived from genetically modified crops and vaccinations, even as we realize that scientific knowledge and recommendations are the best director we have for informed decision making. We must help students, our colleagues, and members of the public appreciate that biology carefully and deliberately analyzes evidence, changes its views only based on data, and in the final analysis, provides the information for wise decision making.
How can NABT members help our citizens become more science-literate? For our nation to prosper we need an informed and engaged public. Educators can and should participate in programs that disseminate scientific discoveries, particularly those that help translate science for the public. Public engagement is essential because it is how we can champion biology. Open and honest dialogue helps build trust between science educators and the public.
Knowledge is empowering and education is the key. Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the great engine of personal development.” We, as educators, link together knowledge and understanding. Biology education underpins scientific progress and is able to transform lives.
Our actions can influence public policy, assist the public in making evidence-based decisions, and alter individual actions. We cannot and should not remain silent when decisions are being made about biology, science education practices, and state standards. Our expertise together with public views can help construct sound strategy. Working collaboratively can help everyone achieve common goals.
So, fellow NABT members, there is much to do. Please tell me what you are doing in support of science, and share with others your work in your local community and in the pages of the American Biology Teacher and on the NABT Facebook page. We have an active, engaged society and we can learn from each other.
I know that we are proud of our allegiance to science, so together, let us celebrate it as a way of rebuilding trust in science. This month (January 8) we honor the birth of Alfred Russel Wallace, and February 12 is Darwin Day, so let us celebrate evolution. The Human Genome Project marks its 15th anniversary on April 25, and May 22 is the International Day for Biological Diversity, thus there are opportunities to celebrate genetics and the environment. Of course, we will all look forward to our celebration of biology education with the 2018 NABT Professional Development Convention November 8–11!