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Put a former math and science teacher together with a publishing house founder who has written award-winning science-oriented materials for youths – both individuals bringing to the table a strong interest in “STEM” issues …

And the outcome can be, and in this case is, free, online curriculum materials for teachers to use in “inoculating” students against various forms of science misinformation.

“If people are educated about misleading argumentation techniques,” Andy Zucker and Penny Noyce say in describing their initiative, “they are better able to resist misinformation based on misleading arguments.”

Zucker and Noyce say such misinformation “has proliferated, especially due to the use of social media. Too many people spread misinformation, often almost instantly. Sometimes people do so without intending to fool or mislead others,” they say. “In other cases, misinformation is spread deliberately.”

Having first met through their affiliations with a nonprofit group committed to advancing understanding of STEM – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – they spent the better part of a year developing and pilot-testing and then tweaking their curriculum. Their effort gained the support of “NOVA” staff at WGBH public radio in Boston.

The resulting curriculum they describe in the Q&A below includes, but goes well beyond, climate change science issues, but much of what they consider – for instance, arguments that “the science is uncertain” – applies broadly. They also offer guidance educating students on how to distinguish ‘fake news’ in fields outside science.

Zucker and Noyce responded to a series of questions posed by Yale Climate Connections about their curriculum.


What is the overall goal of your “Resisting Scientific Misinformation” project?

Zucker: Our goal is giving science teachers tested materials to address the unfortunate fact that the world is increasingly saturated with false “scientific” claims, and thereby helping teachers provide students with the intellectual tools to help them be appropriately skeptical. We want young people to be able to distinguish high-quality scientific information from false claims.

What group is the specific priority target (beneficiary) of this effort?

Zucker: Our primary audience is science teachers in grades 6-12, and through the teachers, their students.

Why did you choose to develop curriculum units rather than pursue your initial idea of doing a trade book?

Noyce: A trade book would be fun but would probably reach only the already-converted. With a curriculum unit, we are hoping to start a trend among teachers to make this kind of learning and thinking a core part of the science curriculum, and build a more scientifically literate citizenry.

Are there common, or generic, “malpractices” that those refuting established scientific findings use across a range of the sciences? Are there some strategies that apply specifically, or exclusively, to anthropogenic global warming?

Noyce: One common misinformation strategy is to claim “the science is uncertain.” Other common “malpractices” are the association of fake science news with celebrities; making claims based on anecdotes; conspiracy theories (e.g., “Drug companies don’t want you to know”); and confusing people about scientific consensus by claiming there are two sides to every story. For global warming, the confounding of weather and climate leads to “common sense” anecdotes that seem to show the world is not warmer; also, research published in Science magazine in 2016 showed that many science teachers are not aware of the overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming is anthropogenic.

Are the practices or strategies science “deniers” use for social media different from the approaches they use via other outreach efforts or media, including traditional mass media?

Zucker: Information on social media is usually brief, so those media are more often reliant on a single arresting photo and/or a captivating meme.

You’ve pilot tested the curriculum. Please describe the who/where/when of that pilot testing.

Zucker: Last fall teachers in six schools (located in California, Maine, and Massachusetts) used the unit with students in grades from 6 through 12 and provided feedback. The students using the materials were diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, family background, and geographic location. (On page 4 of the Teacher Guide we credit the teachers and their schools by name.)

What are the specific feedback reactions/suggestions you got from that testing? Did you revise the curriculum to reflect that input? How?

Noyce: Teachers liked the unit, yet at the same time also offered suggestions to improve it, which is what we asked them to do. We responded by adding to the Teacher Guide more topics for fake ads (which students create during Lesson 1); by adding more “scientific” claims for students to investigate (some of those claims are true and others false); by including student assessments and end-of-class “exit slips” in the Teacher Guide to be used by teachers if they so choose; and by increasing the sound volume on one video. We also added a reference in the Guide to the “claim – evidence – reasoning” approach to instruction promoted by the Next Generation Science Standards.

What suggestions, revisions came about as a result of your working with WGBH and the NOVA group?

Zucker: Originally the “videos” were narrated PowerPoint shows. NOVA staff at WGBH recorded a more accomplished and smoother voiceover with a young female announcer, added music, and created a better overall look for the videos, which are now distributed as MP4 files, not PowerPoint shows.

You mention “inoculation.” Please describe it and how it works. Is an individual once inoculated … permanently inoculated? Or is it a temporary “fix”?

Zucker: In the Teacher Guide we cite three useful experimental studies of “inoculation.” One showed that warning people against specific tactics used to fool them makes them more alert, raises red flags, and helps neutralize misinformation. Another study found that prior media literacy education helped improve students’ ability to tell the difference between claims that were accurate and others that were not, and media literacy education promotes asking good questions about claims, which is one of the techniques we use in our unit. A third study found that informing people about the overwhelming consensus that climate change is man-made helps inoculate them against misinformation. Our unit uses proven techniques from each of these studies.

It's about 'inoculating' people against bad actors and faulty info. Click To Tweet

We don’t know how long inoculation lasts but we believe that one week a year in middle and high school science classes could profitably be spent on inoculation, an initial exposure and then “boosters,” whether in a general science class or a single-subject class like biology, chemistry, or Earth science.

One other issue: The public and the media sometimes can be “unduly” impressed by an individual’s (or scientist’s) affiliation with, for instance, an “elite” university. Yet those too can be guilty of being a science contrarian/denier/”skeptic,” etc., perhaps, for instance, a paid consultant to (e.g.) an oil company or tobacco interest. How can the public be inoculated against being “snookered” simply by a person’s elite affiliation?

Noyce: This is a real and important issue. One of our videos focuses on two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling who, despite his talent and fame, was wrong about the supposedly marvelous curative power of Vitamin C. Even famous, brilliant people can be wrong.

Zucker: I would add that the unit teaches students not to be a “SAP” by blindly accepting questionable claims. SAP stands for asking questions about Sources that support a claim, investigating the Author of the claim, such as with a Google search (of course, on social media the author is often not an expert at all), and thinking about the Purpose of the claim (because if the purpose is to sell something or to appeal to one’s emotions, then one must be extra-careful before accepting the claim).

How can people access and use the curriculum you’ve developed?

Noyce: The materials are free to download on the new Tumblehome Books website. Anyone may use them.