Irrationality, Misinformation and the Role of Science Education in Science Communication.
Human beings, as a species, are capable of both incredible scientific and technical achievements, but also of deep scientific denial. In late 2012 while the Curiosity rover descended from a “sky crane”, to make a soft landing on the surface of mars (NASA. 2012). many people were preparing for the end of the world, which they believed to have been predicted by the end of the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar (Hoopes 2011). This thesis aims to determine the factors contributing to the establishment and persistence of irrational beliefs, and attempts to identify a means of response through science education. Humans find patterns in random noise, ascribe agents, intentions and emotions to completely natural phenomena, and overestimate their control over random chance. When our beliefs are challenged we become uncomfortable considering that we may be wrong, as such a possibility clashes with our ideal perception of ourselves. Subsequently we are convinced by arguments that agree with our preconceptions, even if they are illogical. This is a major obstacle to the communication of accurate scientific information. A series of workshops, comprising two 50-minute sessions, were held to assess the benefit of specific education to communicating the rationale of the principles of science. The workshops were held for two classes of a primary school (P1a, P1b), and two high schools classes (H1, H2). The competency of the classrooms was assessed for both their theoretical understanding of the ideas being communicated, and their application of this knowledge to their own experiments. Additionally the students’ knowledge of the principles of scientific methods was measured prior to, and one month after the workshops, through interviews with a subset of students. The study found that two classes (P1a and H2) were able to demonstrate an improved understanding of the scientific method after the workshop (p<0.01). However H2 demonstrated the lowest ability to apply an understanding of the scientific method to their own experiments. This result suggested that while the H2 students were able to recall the specific information communicated, they were not able to apply this knowledge to practice. Communicating accurate scientific information to adults may not be sufficient to have them reconsider their irrational beliefs. For this reason it is important for science educators to give children the skills to both reason rationally, and to be able to appraise the quality of evidence and information they are exposed to. This can be achieved by focusing on the stated objectives within the ‘Nature of Science’ section of the New Zealand Science Curriculum. However it would also be beneficial to students to understand the innate human cognitive phenomenon that leads people to accepting irrational beliefs. This knowledge will empower the students to challenge not only the arguments of other, but also the evidence their support their own beliefs upon.
Advisor: Fleming, Jean
Degree Name: Master of Science Communication
Degree Discipline: Department of Science Communication
Publisher: University of Otago
Keywords: Irrationality; science communication; misinformation
Research Type: Thesis