If knowledge is power, scientists should easily be able to influence the behavior of others and world events. Researchers spend their entire careers discovering new knowledge—from a single cell to the whole human, from an atom to the universe.
Issues such as climate change illustrate that scientists, even if armed with overwhelming evidence, are at times powerless to change minds or motivate action. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, people in the U.S., one of the countries that emits the most carbon, were among the least concerned about the potential impact of climate change. Why are so many Americans indifferent to this global threat? Yale University professor Dan M. Kahan and his colleagues reported in Nature Climate Change that people with the “highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change.”
For many, knowledge about the natural world is superseded by personal beliefs. Wisdom across disciplinary and political divides is needed to help bridge this gap. This is where institutions of higher education can provide vital support. Educating global citizens is one of the most important charges to universities, and the best way we can transcend ideology is to teach our students, regardless of their majors, to think like scientists. From American history to urban studies, we have an obligation to challenge them to be inquisitive about the world, to weigh the quality and objectivity of data presented to them, and to change their minds when confronted with contrary evidence.
Likewise, STEM majors’ college experience must be integrated into a broader model of liberal education to prepare them to think critically and imaginatively about the world and to understand different viewpoints. It is imperative for the next generation of leaders in science to be aware of the psychological, social and cultural factors that affect how people understand and use information.
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