Op-Ed: Making the sciences more approachable

There’s no doubt that America faces countless problems in the realm of education. Education inequality is one of the most pressing issues facing the country today. One of the greatest concerns with education, however, is the nation’s distrust of science. Science is considered an objective truth. Its methods to prove theories are so rigorous that not only must those hypotheses be proved, but every other alternative must also be proven wrong.

And yet, the United States has repeatedly demonstrated a distrust in science that is unparalleled in many other countries. For instance, the anti-vaccination movement resonates among predominantly white, middle-class families with college-educated parents. These college-educated parents have gone through the U.S. education system, followed by four years of even more advanced, rigorous education. And yet, they are unwilling to accept the facts behind the vaccinations – that these vaccinations have undergone years of research and testing and that the tests have proved the vaccinations both harmless and effective.

How can people go through 16 years of schooling, four of which are at a university, and not believe in the safety and effectiveness of vaccines? Let’s consider some potential reasons. First, it is a widely-known fact that companies often sponsor scientific research in order to promote their own products. For example, research promoting flossing was recently found to be insufficient proof that flossing is effective. Flossing companies had actually sponsored, designed and conducted a great deal of that initial research in order to promote their companies. This could be a convincing argument, had the process for vaccination approval been similar to these examples of sponsored research. In reality, however, the process is very different. Even if private companies do sponsor research, in order to pass FDA regulations, the drug company must be able to show that the drug is not harmful and is actually beneficial. Therefore, this argument doesn’t hold any weight – it just goes to show that many educated people distrust the government’s safety procedures and the science behind them.

Where does this distrust come from? The general trend seems to be that people are afraid of things that are created in a lab or not “naturally grown.” Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have a similar sense of paranoia surrounding them. When people think about science or STEM fields, it seems as though they picture pristine white labs and scary, self-interested people in lab coats, like in Hollywood sci-fi films. However, science is a lot more than that. Most importantly, science for humanitarian purposes is rarely self-interested.

Of course, it’s easy for people to make the argument that everyone in the process of pharmaceuticals is self-interested, especially in light of the recent price hike of EpiPens. However, for the people who create the mechanisms behind the medicines used everyday, this argument doesn’t necessarily work. Why would someone work for years on a single, precise area of a scientific subject — without the guarantee that their research will yield the results they want — if they only desire to get rich? That, coupled with the exorbitant costs and thousands of trials and alterations required to get FDA approval, isn’t exactly a recipe for self-interested motives. This reasoning is one that any parent could rationally figure out. If we know that the majority of anti-vaccination parents are college-educated, why do they not believe in the science that supports medicine? This answer is not clear-cut, as the reason comes from a multitude of outlets. From conspiracy theories spread through the internet to famous people and politicians voicing their doubts without backing, doubt of science has quite a few unscientific origins. However, the field of education shoulders its fair share of blame too.

It often seems that many individuals are scared away from scientific subjects because, even from a young age, students hit the ground running when they learn “hard science” subjects. For some people, hard science or hard math aren’t suited to them – a completely acceptable thing. However, this means that a population of students who are extensively educated end up avoiding STEM subjects altogether or develop a fear of those subjects. Those students will therefore never gain the numerous potential benefits from taking STEM classes.

This is why, despite the fact that I often gripe about Tufts’ distribution requirements, they are so important. Because of Tufts’ vast resources, science classes geared towards humanities-thinking people exist and humanities classes geared towards STEM-thinking people exist. The most important thing about these classes should be understanding the scientific method, the social science method or whatever the field that takes someone out of their comfort zone. If a humanities-thinking person takes a science class geared towards them and other non-STEM majors, the actual science information they learn probably won’t be the most important thing they take away from the class. The scientific process, on the other hand, can act as an alternative way of thinking that they can apply to their own field of study. Therefore, it is important that distribution requirements exist as a way to expand a person’s understanding of the world rather than instill an increased fear of disliked subjects. Maybe this way, we can take a step closer towards eliminating the ignorance that plagues this country and has the potential to harm its inhabitants.

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