Educators and Scientists Are Our Friends, Not Our Enemies
By JIM NICHOLS
Perhaps because my adult career has included both teaching and science, I am discouraged with our current American cultural climate. Somehow, we have concluded that two of the most positive human endeavors are now untrustworthy. The media are full of conflict voices questioning the basic skills and intentions of people who, historically, have been held with esteem.
Each of us has a short list of “favorite teachers.” My second-grade teacher wore a large sunflower in the back of her hair and we students swore it was a third eye because she seemed to be able to see us even when her back was turned to us. On my birthday she kissed me on the cheek; I have never forgotten that.
My high school history teacher assigned us writing exercises that had minimum requirements but, instead, let me write with creativity; I could make up stories if they had some pertinence to the history lesson. It was a life-changing and fun educational event for me.
Several college teachers come to mind. By choice, I took the same Bible professor for multiple courses. His head was apparently packed with church history, and he helped me see the way believers in the past have struggled with my same problems. This was long ago when voice recording was done on large tape recorders that you set on a desk. (In my early days of teaching, I counted 17 recorders on the large classroom desk in front of me.) When this former professor of mine was teaching, however, one could not record him; he would not let you. I witnessed him interrupting a lecture when a person set a recorder in front of him on the stage. This was a great loss because he was an engaging, inspiring, and helpful lecturer. He also made what some might interpret as controversial comments occasionally; because of that, his rationale for not allowing recording was, “When someone listens to that, they will not be able to see the twinkle in my eye.”
I suspect you, too, can remember some teachers who shaped you.
Today we seem to have educators looking over their shoulders wondering what their school boards or state legislatures are going to do next. These teachers and librarians are lifetime professionals in their fields; how about we just trust them to do the same wonderful things they did for us?
When the calendar rolled to 2000, several publications, in retrospect, tried to identify the “Top 10 positive contributions of the 20th century.” Each of the lists included many scientific advances such as the creation of antibiotics, the understanding of DNA, and the widespread development of vaccines for diseases that have plagued humans for centuries.
What has happened to American society that the descendants of those scientists are now the enemy? As a science educator, I am dumbfounded at the scientific illiteracy of so many public leaders and media sources. Apparently, those of us teaching science at any level have been missing the mark. Including the past-immediate President, we see quack, ill-informed medical treatments promoted, and clear, scientific, testable treatments ridiculed.
Every beginning science student is taught that science is a developmental discipline that follows rules. An observation is made, an hypothesis is constructed, an experiment is designed to test the validity of the hypothesis, data are gathered, a tentative conclusion is made based on the data. The assumption is that other scientists will perform subsequent experiments that will either support or invalidate the earlier conclusion. Science expects to face correction; with each correction, the conclusions become more certain and the benefit to humans increases.
With COVID treatments and recommendations, we have seen modern science in action. We have also seen the intrusion of partisan politics clouding and sometimes blocking the guidance of some of the brightest scientists in history. Scientific errors and past miscalculations do not indicate malice; they indicate that the scientific method works. When we see politicians and pundits pontificating on science, we need to discount them, frankly. I do not tell my automobile mechanic how to do the work.
Educators and scientists represent the best in human achievement. They make mistakes (as do we all), but I trust them as people of good-will, experience, and competence and am glad to put my future and the future of those I love, in their hands.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain