by Dr. Dimitrios Schizas, Ph.D. in Theoretical Ecology and History & Philosophy of Biology
Socio-scientific controversial topics are intriguing and important not only for scientists but also for politicians, economists, farmers, workers and indeed all citizens. All citizens, for example, have to decide whether to feed on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), buy products from companies that employ experiments with animals or consent to the use of biofuels.
In democratic societies, citizens express their opinions on socio-scientific controversies in a variety of ways (e.g., in discussions with friends, throughout social media, etc.), and under the causal influence of many factors such as religious beliefs, upbringing, political ideology and personal experiences shaped by gender, age, nationality and economic status. Many times, they are also reluctant or helpless to reasonably analyze socio-scientific controversial topics and react emotionally without taking the underlying scientific knowledge into account. These reactions, however, result in social conservatism and inhibit the implementation of progressive and rather beneficial social policies. Suppose for example that a society wants to maximize the benefits or minimize the problems that may arise from the use of biotechnology. Apparently the implementation of this policy presupposes the presence of citizens who possess fundamental knowledge about biological topics and can evaluate the social use of biotechnology from several standpoints such as epistemological (e.g. to know whether science can accurately predict the dangers induced by the social use of biotechnology), political, economic, ethical and so on.
Speaking from a science education point of view (BSCS 2009), many teachers believe that the teaching of socio-scientific controversial topics may place them on opposite sides of an issue from their students, thereby jeopardizing the presence of intimate and collaborative relationships in classroom. They also fear that discussing controversies may induce negative emotions and aggressive behavior in their students leading thus to conflicts. Moreover, some teachers feel cognitively or pedagogically unable to cope with the variety of questions and comments that the teaching of controversies may stimulate on the part of students.
Why, then, socio-scientific controversial topics should be taught in school or academic environments? Science educators argue that such topics can play a beneficial role in learners’ understanding of content-based and procedural scientific knowledge and this is why they have been emphasized by an increasing number of international science education standards. In particular, apart from being easily and directly connected to content themes that run through a biology course, socio-scientific controversial topics can (a) stimulate interest in biological topics by providing learners with real-world and familiar (daily) contexts (g) promote learners’ engagement with biological knowledge and inquiry by highlighting the importance of basic research to our health and well-being (c) familiarize learners with multidisciplinary approaches and offer them the opportunity of overviewing a great range of conceptual knowledge and (d) help learners abandon the assumption that science consists of only a great deal of memorization and enhance their critical thinking skills or other skills such as the higher level ones that can be defined in the frame of Bloom’s taxonomy.
The teaching of socio-scientific controversial topics is also aligned with modern views of scientific literacy that stress the nature of science (NOS) component. By confronting themselves with socio-scientific controversies, learners are challenged to consider the societal implications of science and technology and deal with moral ambiguity and disagreement. Learners are also empowered to avoid non-informed NOS views such as the ones concerning the static, fixed and objective view of scientific knowledge and are provided with opportunities to become familiar with NOS tenets that science educators wish from learners to know. These tenets include the empirical basis (based on and/or derived from observations of the natural world), the subjectivity (theory-laden) and tentativeness (subject to change) of scientific knowledge, the role of human inference, imagination and creativity (i.e., that scientific knowledge is partly the product of such matters), the social and cultural embeddedness of science and the absence of a universal step-by-step scientific method. Needless to say, the understanding of these NOS tenets is inherently related to the ability of learners to navigate their personal lives and behave as informed citizens, e.g., to make informed decisions about social issues in which science and technology are involved.
BSCS (2009). The Biology Teacher’s Handbook, 4th Edition (NSTA press: USA). ISBN: 9780873552448.