Maybe We Should Teach This

This post is sort of a follow-up to my Friday post, The Dumbest Timeline. The one where I pointed out that one of the far-right’s leading voices is a guy who calls himself Catturd and has reprehensible views, yet still is widely shared by leaders in the Republican Party.

This is about a possible solution to all this dumbness that I admit might be a little too pie-in-the-sky. I also want to preface what I will write by saying I do not doubt there are teachers in schools doing a bang-up job teaching K-12 students some of the three suggestions I have to add to our overall curriculum. But, I do not think that what I am going to suggest is something that is really happening on a widespread basis.

For starters, I think one thing that should be required for K-12 students is learning the scientific process. The evidence of the need for this is a significant amount of stuff I saw posted online about the COVID vaccines. But even before COVID, I strongly felt that the anti-science sentiment growing throughout the last decade was at least partially due to ignorance.

People seem to think that scientists just get money to play with chemistry kits for fun. I work as a science writer, and this just is not the case. Science involves a lot of careful, precise, and hard work to make sure that data is correct. The idea that scientists make things up or just do things for nothing but the funding just is not true.

I will also add that movies have poisoned people’s minds about risk-taking in science. Any risk-taking in science is tightly controlled, and there are a lot of safety precautions. So many movies, especially in the horror and science fiction realm, misrepresent science as ultra careless. While this makes for exciting fiction, the problem is people get in their heads that this is real life.

A better understanding of how science is done, including an honest discussion on the pitfalls that science can fall into especially in the private sector, I believe is vital for a functioning society. In our next pandemic, for example, it would be a lot better if a large portion of our population did not believe that vaccines are part of a nefarious attempt to control our minds.

The second part of this is around meteorology. In both my stint at a private forecasting company, and just being an amateur interested in the weather, it was hard not to notice just how poor the understanding of meteorology is among the general public. Talking the basics here; people with either little idea of local climate or a totally wrong one, how to understand risks presented by weather, and perhaps the saddest, belief that certain long-debunked myths are gospel truths.

I say saddest because it can cause a person to not react to weather warnings during catastrophic events, either due to believing that forecasts are never correct or clinging to a false belief such as tornadoes cannot hit near rivers (they can and do). A fair amount of people cannot find their location on a map (important for things like severe weather warnings) nor understand how to read a weather radar. In many cases, weather apps make this worse by presenting the person with misleading information, based mainly on faulty algorithms that may not take into account factors like microclimates.

With extreme weather events likely to continue to become more common, a weather-ready nation is extremely important. For individuals, being “weather-wise” can literally mean the difference between life or death. Basic meteorology that is tied to the climate the school is in, keeping in mind the most common weather-related risks in that region (blizzards around the Great Lakes, tornadoes in the Deep South, hurricanes on the Gulf Coast, and so on) would help to save lives in a new climate change influenced world.

And finally, schools should increase the teaching of critical thinking skills; even if this would require a separate class. This is another aspect of education that will only become more important. While extreme, dangerous weather will increase due to climate change, critical thinking will only become more important. The Internet, then social media, has created a situation where there is so much information, and misinformation, blasted at us in a steady firehose stream directly into our brains. This makes it very very difficult to tell what is true and what is not.

From everything I have been reading lately, this problem will be worsened by artificial intelligence (AI). The scariest thing about AI actually isn’t super intelligent and strong robots hunting us down to wipe out humanity, greater risks posed by AI range from algorithms that could wreck our economy (it already has before) to increasing inequality.

However, for the purposes of this blog post, one problematic aspect of AI is the ability for it to produce an article that is designed to manipulate people, either politically or for some other more nefarious reason. It can also be completely wrong, as Timnit Gebru, an AI researcher, pointed out on Vox Media’s The Gray Matter podcast when she noted that sometimes Google Maps can give us directions that are not the best way to get somewhere. Gebru notes that we unfortunately put deep trust into AI, pointing to research where people will believe AI is somehow superior even in situations where it is obviously wrong.

Critical thinking, where a person learns to ask the right questions based on reason, facts, and logic, will be ultra-important in such a world. With the rise of online-focused cults like QAnon and Trumpism, it is hard not to see why it is so important.

So…imagine a world where people make decisions about vaccines based on a clear understanding of science that enables them to dismiss charlatans. Or, a world where people understand the difference between a watch and a warning as a hurricane is approaching and can make more informed decisions to save life and property. Or, a world where something like QAnon could never, ever take over a political party.

That sounds pretty good, right? A change in educational tactics could help us get there.

The last word goes to Timbuk 3, a very pro-education song in its own way.

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