Lessons for political discussions from science education

The 2016 Presidential election has made everyone more aware of the growing political gulf in the United States. We have a natural desire to explain to those around us how we feel, to get others to change their minds, or at least help others empathize with our political positions. But we also need to find better ways to talk to one another.

It may seem surprising, but I believe those of us who teach science using research-based methods have something to contribute to this discussion. Every day we step into the classroom, we attempt to convince our students of the need to learn something and the need to learn it in a way that may seem unusual or unnecessary to them.

Here are a few ways that lessons from science education might be applied to political discourse.

  1. Misconceptions abound. In teaching science we often find that students have misconceptions  — ideas that differ or contradict scientific understandings. One famous example from physics is the rock on a string. Many students believe that if you swing a rock on a string and the string breaks, the rock will keep moving in a circular manner. In fact, it moves in a straight line in the direction it was traveling when the string broke. In this case students do not have sufficient experience with this situation and are relying on their intuition about motion. In other cases misconceptions come from misunderstandings or poor prior instruction. If you have only studied rocks on strings in calculations for circular motion you may start to forget the reason for the string.

    The analogy to political discussions is not perfect here. Misconceptions in science correspond to a provable truth. In politics we are arguing between various choices which may be more right or less bad than others.  That said, I think the analogy holds. If you are intent on having productive political discussions it is important to remember that the person you are talking to has different experiences than yours. They may have different intuitions about politics or they may have had personal experiences that strongly orient their views. Those views may be so different from your own that they cannot understand your perspective, or you theirs.

  2. Discovering misconceptions requires discussion, patience and a lack of judgement. When I used to lecture I never even knew my students had misconceptions, at least until I gave an exam. While reading their answers to the exam I would wonder “Where did that come from?” I now teach very differently, with my students working in small groups, and often it is only when I am sitting with a group that I realize a misconception is preventing students from learning. The trick is, no one ever raises their hand and says “I’m having a misconception.” They ask an unrelated question which requires several steps of back-tracking to discover that the real problem is an (incorrect) assumption that they did not realize they had made. This back-tracking requires a great deal of patience on the instructors part, but also a lack of judgement. If you tell a student one of their misconceptions is stupid, they are unlikely to engage with you in that in-depth discussion again in the future.

    Some misconceptions in the political sphere are going to seem pretty obvious,  but my guess is that most people have a more nuanced views that you will only discover with long, non-judgmental discussions.

  3. Misconceptions are extremely difficult to overcome. In science classes we find that simply telling students the correct concept does not overcome their misconceptions. Students may be able to parrot back an explanation for a day or two, but a week later on an exam they revert to their prior (incorrect) understanding. In other words, it does no good whatever to tell someone they are wrong. They either will not believe you, or will revert to their prior belief after you end your discussion.

    How do you overcome misconceptions? In science class students have to undergo what is called a “conceptual change”. In a conceptual change students must receive and trust evidence which is completely incongruous with their prior understanding. If the evidence is merely somewhat incongruous, the student will revise their old understanding to fit the new information. To evince conceptual change you must also a new way of thinking that is substantially better. If it is only marginally better, the student reverts.

    In the political context, all the facts and numbers in the world will do no good whatsoever. If you don’t believe me, count the number of times you have ended an argument by giving a statistic, upon which the other person admits that you were right all along. If you come up with a number greater than 2, well, I suspect you’re kidding yourself. You have to find an example of a case that the person can believe, and which is completely incongruous with their previous stance. If this sounds hard, it is. It’s difficult in science class where I know what the damn chemicals are going to do when I mix them. People are much harder. But if you know this going in you have a greater chance of being heard and understood.

  4. Jargon is your enemy. The absolute worst way to teach science is to begin with vocabulary. If you define all of your terms then try to teach, you’ve lost. In other words, I could explain oxidation and reduction, molecular orbital energies and radical species before I start talking about what a flame is. Or, I can talk about flames in everyday language and then, if necessary, introduce the fancy language of science. The language just gets in the way and make exciting topics really dry and boring. I’m hopeful that someday the textbook companies will catch on to this, but that’s a topic for a different post.

    In terms of politics, don’t start with the phrase “single payer” or “earned income tax credit”. The other person’s mind is trying to figure out what you mean by those words and doesn’t hear you while you advance your well-crafted, convincing argument. Worse, those words may have a negative connotation for the listener, in which case they’ve already tuned you out.

  1. Things don’t change in a day. It is pretty frequent that a student, two or three years later, will drop by to tell me that they were discussing a topic in an advanced class when a concept from my class “suddenly clicked”. Learning doesn’t always happen within the tidy confines of a semester or a classroom. Sometimes it takes someone else saying it differently (or, infuriatingly, saying it the exact same way) for a student to learn something.

    The same is going to be true with political discussions. Someone might disparage your information, or your logic or you emotions now, but sometime in the future they might suddenly grasp your argument and embrace it as their own.

I hope this is a helpful way for us to find new ways to approach political dialogue. If you have thoughts or ideas, please share in the comments!