This is part of a series called Focal Point, in which we ask a range of Harvard faculty members to answer the same question.
Question: If you were to write a letter to your students, what would you want them to know?
The most important lesson I learned — and now share with my students — came from Professor Brendan Maher at Harvard. Maher taught me to cast a cold eye on the final truth. And he taught me to be wary of accepting other people’s ideas about the truth, including those from leading intellectual authorities. His core course, “Conceptions of Human Nature,” focused on critically examining different viewpoints of human nature by thinkers like Sigmund Freud, B.F. Skinner, E.O. Wilson, and Karl Marx.
By the end of the semester, there were always students who said, “OK, Professor Maher, we know what’s wrong with these viewpoints. Now which one is right?” With a twinkle in his eye, Maher would respond, “If you’re convinced you have the final truth, there is a great danger that you will close your mind to the possibility that you are in error.” The main lesson, he’d say, is that “We must learn to live in doubt, yet act based on scientific thinking.”
Other great scientists, including Nobel Prize winners Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, and Richard Feynman, have stressed that scientific thinking is the key to developing peoples’ moral and intellectual strengths, and that this would lead to a better society.
According to Feynman, the scientific worldview was a habit of mind, and once acquired one could not retreat from it. I would underscore, as Feynman did, that the scientific method contains within itself a system of logic and standards of evidence that can be used for the betterment of educating students.
Curie, Einstein, and Feynman were concerned about the rise in militarism, fascism, and authoritarianism. Because of such concerns, they stressed the humanizing power of scientific thinking and its vital role in a democratic society. Today, once again we are witnessing worries about the rise of militarism, fascism, and authoritarianism.
In his last interview, the famous physicist the late Stephen Hawking cited recent political events in the U.S. and Britain as indicators of a “global revolt against experts and that includes scientists.” Hawking warned that science was in danger more than ever before. And like him, I suggest to my students to adopt scientific thinking to overcome global challenges.
Because of the current political environment, many scientists, like Hawking, have been galvanized by what has been dubbed the “post-truth” era to speak out on the importance of scientific thinking.
To date, most efforts have centered on improving the content, accessibility, and delivery of scientific communications and also developing online strategies to counteract the effects of misinformation. This approach relies on a “knowledge-deficit model,” the idea that the lack of support for science and “good policies” merely reflects a lack of information. So if the public were just provided more facts the support for science and “good policies” would rise. Though it is important to supply the public with more information on a range of topics, the question remains whether conveying knowledge using a top-down model — which is still the way most scientific information is communicated — works. There is evidence suggesting that efforts to persuade the public often fail. Telling people they are wrong, uninformed, and that their religious or personal beliefs do not align with facts often winds up backfiring.
Likewise, telling people they are racially or culturally biased can activate bias rather than stamp it out. If people feel forced to accept scientific information, they may do the opposite to assert their autonomy.
I like to emphasize to students, when areas of science are contentious, a missing fact is not the sole core of the problem and supplying the public with more information is not the sole solution. As Maher, Curie, Einstein, and Feynman emphasized, equally or more important is learning to think scientifically and to learn to evaluate information contained in communications.
For nearly 30 years I have been researching, writing, and teaching courses on advanced research methods and on the psychology of diversity, and have with my team of researchers been conducting research on the Science of Diversity educational method. As a professor and researcher, I have had a ringside seat to the power of scientific thinking. I have also seen how attainable this skill is. Yet, when I first began to delve into the research, I was surprised by the striking gap between science education and teaching scientific thinking. Surprisingly little is known about improving this critical skill. So, I begin by asking my students: What is scientific thinking? How is it different from everyday thinking and from appealing to emotion and personal belief? And how can it be used to engage others in conversations in a polarized society?
First and foremost, scientific thinking involves reliance not on armchair theorizing, political conviction, or personal opinion, but instead on methods of empirical research independently available to anyone as a means of opening up the world for scrutiny. All opinions should be viewed as hypotheses to be tested empirically rather than as appeals to emotion.
Second, there is a feature of scientific thinking that is often not talked about explicitly. We might term this feature scientific integrity or honesty. When researchers conduct a study, they are expected to report everything that might make it invalid and unreliable, not just what they think is right about it. I would emphasize to students the importance of being open to being wrong.
Though facts and statistics can be useful for persuading the public, reporting only half the facts is not useful if our intention is to learn how to think scientifically. If our aim is to encourage scientific thinking, I would ask students, for example, to consider why studies on racial bias in police shootings reach such different conclusions?
Third, scientific thinking considers all the facts and information and invites others to evaluate the value of the research. Scientists have learned that the truth will ultimately come out when our peers repeat our experiments. So, I would encourage students to examine their own assumptions and to be honest with themselves.
For instance, if I reported only on the studies showing that there is no evidence of racial bias in police shootings, why did I do so? Was my intention to convince the public that racial bias does not exist? Or if I reported only on the studies showing that there is evidence of racial bias in police shootings, why? We might term this principal of scientific thinking self-awareness, the ability to see our intentions and ourselves clearly — an ability I hope students develop.
Fourth, scientific thinking remains always tentative, subject to challenge and possible refutation. The limitations of scientific thinking do not eliminate the chance to do good research. Instead, it makes us mindful of the errors in research — and the limitations of all human understanding.
Fifth, all scientific thinking, as Maher used to remind us, is subject to error. It is better for us to be aware of this, to study the causes and assess the importance of the errors rather than to be unaware of the errors concealed in the data and in the mind of the scientist.
In today’s polarized society, conversations on so many topics often end up becoming political and emotional battles. By contrast, scientific thinking is designed to facilitate conversations on contentious topics, between divergent viewpoints, and to foster understanding.
When conversations in our classes on diversity get bogged down by passionate opinions, my teaching fellow, Lizbeth Jacobs, likes to say, “Let’s use our scientific-thinking life raft.” It is an apt analogy. A raft can keep us from sinking and becoming stuck in the workings of our own minds.
It is a universal truth that diversity is a feature of nature. This is true of individuals, families, social classes, religious groups, ethnic groups, and nations. There will always be diverse polarized views with which people are passionately identified. Scientific thinking is a fair two-sided method for evaluating polarized views, fake news, misinformation, and disinformation. The Science of Diversity Education method creates a culture of inclusion. It makes room for rival hypotheses.
Finally, to my students: “Do not take my word. I may be wrong. So test it yourself and see if it works.”
— Mona sue Weissmark
Part-time Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences