Science and Social Justice: Critical Teaching on “Trusting the Science”

Presented by Western Mass Science for the People, and hosted by the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership, Saturday, December 11, 2021, 4:00-6:00 p.m. on Zoom

This was our fourth Making Science Work for Social Justice community workshop. This time we focused on how to think critically about “trusting science,” and how to integrate those discussions into classrooms at every level of education. We often hear people say, “Trust the science!” But what does that really mean? Which science? Whose science? How do historic and ongoing injustices prevent people from trusting scientific institutions? What would it take to envision and build science we do trust? And what can we do in the meantime to develop critical trust and greater transparency?

Our workshops are always intended for a wide audience with diverse perspectives. At the core of our solidarity science philosophy is a focus on reaching multiple experiences and understandings to solve problems and improve the science itself. We invite participants to demand more from the scientific community, to create a coalition, to listen to each other better, to critique the role of science in our lives, and rather than ask, “how do we fix this?”, question who we need at the table to fix this.

For this workshop, we especially sought to facilitate lively discussions among teachers, students, and community members interested in transforming the way we think, communicate, and teach about science. Our goal was for teachers to leave with new ideas for classroom activities, and everyone to leave with meaningful connections knowing they had helped re-envision STEM education.

Our workshop began with “lightning talks” by our members to orient participants to some of the central problems related to trust and science that we have been discussing in our chapter meetings. We then proceeded to breakout rooms, where participants met in groups of three to five people and engaged in exciting discussions.

As you can see from the archived materials below, both the lightning talks and the breakout rooms represented diverse perspectives.

Please feel free to use the materials from our workshop to create your own programs. And if you do, please let us know! We are excited to see what you do.





Here we share some of the comments that were made during the breakout sessions. We relied on the notes taken by the scribes during those sessions, aided as well by our own memories of the sessions that we participated in. We edited the notes for clarity.

Accessibility of Scientific Knowledge

  • Scientific articles should not be behind a paywall. The information should be accessible to anyone who wants to read it.

Critical Thinking in Science Education

  • Science education could place a greater emphasis on teaching students to read graphs and spot ways that graphs can be easily manipulated to be misleading at first glance.
  • There could be more overlap between the humanities and science in schools to highlight that critical thinking against bias is applicable in both areas.
  • Test standards in schools emphasize algorithms and facts, which cuts out the questioning process and limits curiosity.
  • Teachers should ask questions that empower students, like: What do you notice? (No wrong answers); What do you wonder? (Students prefer this to what questions do you have.); What do you already know? (This helps develop agency around learning.) Why haven’t they been asked these questions? Why hasn’t their expertise been tapped?
  • Attaching names to scientific methods or ideas gives an image that those are the people who can do science. We need an emphasis on science as a process and a method of thought instead of XXX formula from XXX person.
  • What activities would help students explore uncertainty and complexity in ways that push beyond binaries?
  • We can focus more, in teaching and our own education, on democratizing science, vs. power and profit, and at the same time recognizing its specialized knowledge.

The Problem of “Trust” and Other Questions of Politics in Science

  • We have to ask people why they do not trust the science in the first place. How do we rectify past mistakes? Many people have been excluded and that has an impact.
  • Trust the science can be a means of oppression. It makes people have less of a voice.
  • It’s important to teach about power and structures that underlie science. Transparency is not enough, because then people are overwhelmed with information that is difficult to understand. We need structures and systems that promote confidence.
  • Science is political but not recognized as political. Science reflects values and politics–what questions get asked, what gets funded, manufacturing consent.
  • The label of science is subjective. Indigenious communities have developed knowledge without the notion of science. What kind of knowledge do we attribute value to?
  • Science will be trusted when it becomes trustworthy.
  • The controversy over Critical Race Theory (banning it in Alabama) provides similar context: it’s a battleground in banning certain types of truths and not all truths; those that aren’t banned get naturalized as “the truth” (namely: there’s no problem with our history, with this country, there’s no systemic racism…)
  • We need to look at the power structures and business models, not just the technology itself – e.g., the problems with GMOs are often about who is profiting and who is bearing the risks, rather than the specific technology per se.
  • Certainty attracts people whose subjectivities feel comforted by clear-cut decisions about truth vs. falsehood deliberated by science.
  • We need to talk about how science can uphold systems of oppression and how it can also dismantle systems of oppression.

Working with Communities

  • We should work with communities and approach by listening. We should engage residents about their local, place-based, experiential knowledge.
  • Relationships are important. Who are our relationships with? Who do people feel accountable to? How is it possible to develop connections and centering people as people?
  • There is often a disconnect between what the powered interests want and what people in the community want. People in the community feel their needs are not met, they are not being heard, and that different conversations are being held.
  • We have to work hard to overcome the gaps between academics and communities. Not just with a powerpoint. This is real life.
  • Education needs to be extended to adults and people in communities. This way people will be able to engage with the science and challenges confronting their communities.

Here is a longer summary of an exchange between two members of a breakout session, who continued their discussion after the event:

Science teaching is part of what we need to look into about the way we educate or are educated in our society. Two examples and one way of looking at the barriers follow:

Example 1: Black folks have historically and socially powerful reasons to not trust science (e.g. the ratification via early 20th-century eugenics scientific “dogma” of the 19th-century view that Blacks are stupid—for example, legitimated Thomas Jefferson’s views about Blacks). On a personal note, as a Black person, I have to take a leap of faith as I engage repeatedly with a scientific/medical environment that is predominantly white, racist, racialized.

Example 2: How can we believe/trust something if decisions, justifications, priorities, etc are dictated by capitalist logics? “Get capitalism out of education.”

Barriers at the level of policy setting and the governance that defines the needs that get the resources allocated to: Funding priorities in our educational system can’t be cracked as currently set up due to a chicken/egg vicious reproduction cycle. The “rules of funding” at so many levels allow for the enabling of certain ways only (and not other, outside-the-box, reforms that would address major needed changes, per the examples (1) and (2) above). Otherwise, funding is denied—there’s no funding for such outside-the-box crack-up of the educational vicious cycle. The result is that there’s no change at the levels of (a) the professional formation/socialization of policy makers as they rise through the ranks from their own schooling, as well as of (b) the profile/nature of the funding recipients/funded initiatives. In brief, the growth of alternative leadership profiles that would change our education logics aren’t materially supported/incentivized. Another example of these barriers: There are legal barriers to what can be taught (e.g. bans on Critical Race Theory or any history that will make white people feel bad are now in place in more than 60% of our states, and that number is growing). How on earth will we ever have a STEAM-educated population if the truth remains banned? That is a great analogy RE the chicken/egg vicious cycle, and I fear it’s getting worse. Hopefully a phoenix will rise from the nest…

Finally, here is a reflection by one of our chapter members who reviewed the notes from the breakout sessions and noticed a need for more explication of why trust in science is necessary and how it can be approached with critical awareness:

“Trust science” does not mean accept everything that science offers uncritically on a pedestal, but just to value it for what it does well that we can’t do for ourselves, nor expect from other pursuits (like you may question, but don’t always try to be, your own lawyer or auto mechanic). Science simply gives us its empirical, data-driven nature, and, while everyone has valid experiences and knowledge of their own, science has still more people with particular skills, methods, infrastructure, time, and resources to study the natural world and develop the basis of technology. Of course science is imperfect; it is after all a human endeavor. It makes mistakes, and some scientists may cling to pet ideas, but in general it properly changes direction when new data show the need, it is not dogma depending on outdated information or myths. It is not neutral and can become bureaucratized, elitist, racist, coopted, and misused by bad actors too, so it needs to be democratized, decolonized, decentralized, and demystified, and we need solidarity science and education as well. Science is actually a fairly conservative process, asking for replication, mechanisms, and low probabilities of error due to chance, while also noting that certainty is often impossible, so sometimes it is actually misused by the powerful and special interests to block change (e.g., calling for impossible levels of certainty in the name of “sound science” before accepting that cigarettes cause cancer, or that there is global warming, etc.). People need to be informed consumers, with real power over how science, just like everything else really, is used in society, emphasizing human needs more than profit. The phrase “trust but check” comes to mind. But science, along with social change, is still clearly key for developing real and sustainable improvements in the environment, health, and more, including such currently hot topics as alternative energy and vaccines.