Basketball star Kyrie Irving said in February that the Earth is flat, and before long a middle-school student repeated that head-scratcher in Nick Gurol’s classroom at Wissahickon Charter School.
“This is going to be an easy fix,” Gurol thought to himself.
But Gurol, a student teacher working on his master's degree in education at the University of Pennsylvania, soon learned that fake news is making his chosen profession even trickier than usual. He marshaled exhaustive evidence that the planet is round – videos, articles, logic – to no avail. The middle-schooler found the basketball player’s statement more persuasive.
Gurol recounted his experience Wednesday at Penn, where he is one of six students in the classroom of Susan Yoon, an associate professor in the university’s Graduate School of Education.
The title of the course is "Advanced Scientific Methods," and Yoon has devoted ample time this semester to strategies for combating nonscientific beliefs. What to do when a politician or celebrity casts doubt on evolution, the safety of vaccines, or humans’ role in global warming? And how to address the topics efficiently, when class time is limited by the need to cover the required curriculum?
Yoon cited the example of Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner, who drew fire last week for stating that a warmer climate might be caused by the Earth's moving closer to the sun, or a growing number of “warm bodies” inhabiting the planet.
Several of her students chuckled ruefully, well aware of the overwhelming evidence that the problem is due to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
They agreed that the persuasiveness of a public figure’s message depends on who is talking and who is listening.
Gurol, who had trouble countering the statements of basketball’s Irving, said his Philadelphia classroom students were ready to believe him on the topic of climate change after watching a video of President Trump. (The president has softened his campaign rhetoric questioning climate change, though he has sought to roll back what he called the “war on coal” by President Barack Obama.)
The students’ negative response to Trump did not make Gurol feel much better, however. He said he would rather they arrive at a conclusion after weighing the scientific evidence.
Jessica Jahnke, who is student-teaching chemistry and physics at the Academy of Palumbo high school, agreed.
“I think it’s best to present the data and have them come up with their own ideas,” she said.
Yoon countered: What if there is not enough time? And what if students do not arrive at the “correct” answer?
She reminded students that for some topics, there is little to no controversy among scientists, while others, such as genetic modification of plants and animals, leave room for debate. Always consider the agenda of who is funding the research and who is performing it, she said.
Ferreting out bogus science is a hot topic these days.
Friday at 6 p.m., the Chemical Heritage Foundation is holding “Scholar Smackdown,” in which science historians present bona fide research followed by three statements on the same topic: two truths and a lie. The audience at the museum at 315 Chestnut St. votes on which is which. The event is free and no registration is required.
Then, on April 24, the Philadelphia Science Festival is featuring “Scientific Malarkey,” a panel of researchers talking about debunked ideas of the past, to be held at National Mechanics bar and restaurant, 22 S. Third St. The event also is free and no tickets are needed.
Yoon’s students talked about the importance of getting a consistent, pro-science message from an early age.
“I think it’s really important that we have a concerted effort in science education from pre-K through 12th grade,” said Elese Lau, a student teacher in a Philadelphia high school that she declined to name.
The class also agreed that in the internet age, their job seems to be growing more difficult.
“There’s just so much information out there,” said Rebecca Raso, another student teacher at Academy of Palumbo.
She and her classmates discussed strategies such as using scientific articles that are rewritten for a younger audience, or enlisting savvy 12th graders to explain concepts to those in lower grades.
Though it may be on the rise, controversy in the classroom is nothing new.
Before class, Yoon recalled her own experience more than 20 years ago in Toronto, when she was teaching evolution.
A student’s mother came into class with a Bible and said, “You need to read this.”
Yoon responded that she had.
“Religion and science coexist in my world,” she said. “In science, I use different standards of evidence.”