Social Justice in Science Class

In science classes, we teach students to think carefully about the relationship between observation and hypothesis. Let’s encourage them to use that thinking to create a more just world.
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Our school recently had a painful episode, when a group of mostly white students at our predominantly white institution made disparaging comments about a historically black university. The comments were public and meant to humiliate. While school authorities took steps to denounce the remarks, I overheard other students defending some of the comments and those who made them. It seems they had fact-checked one of the statements and, finding it factual, decided that the comments could not show bias. 

As a science educator, I noticed that these students had used scientific thinking to analyze the situation. Why were my conclusions so different?

The answer is that scientific analysis can be thought of as a two-way street. One way it can progress is through the inductive method. In this method, a scientist gathers facts to create a consistent picture of the world. But science can also be deductive. Deductive methods start with an idea of how the world is and then seek to confirm that idea by gathering evidence to support it. 

Some of the original science philosophers have compared the inductive method to ants building an anthill. If we think of each grain of sand or speck of dirt that comprises an anthill an individual fact, then we can see how the shape and structure of the final conclusion are built out of the facts themselves—the number gathered and the way they meld together as they accumulate. In inductive reasoning, the hypothesis follows from the observations.

The deductive process, on the other hand, is like a spider spinning an octagonal web. Imagine a spider web, made visible by drops of dew clinging to the strands. If we think of each droplet as a fact, then we can see how the shape and structure of the final product are determined by the web—a pattern in place before the facts began to accrue. In deductive reasoning, observations are collected to support a hypothesis.

Science education, at its heart, is about teaching students the methods they’ll use to understand the world around them.

Both deductive and inductive methods have enjoyed soaring successes in science, but both can lead users astray. The key—for us and for our students—is to recognize the difference between the two. When we teach inductive and deductive reasoning, we’re teaching our students to recognize the relationship between observation and hypothesis. We need to show them how that relationship shapes their lives beyond the science classroom.

We should begin with the understanding that bias is a fundamentally deductive process. The frame of “otherness” becomes a unifying theory that selective experience of the world only seems to confirm. And bias, like other forms of deductive reasoning, is particularly tricky when its methods are obscured.

In the case of our school’s episode, the students who made the comments were quick to cite the evidence they had looked up, as if their interpretation had proceeded from those facts. But they already had a web in place: The minority institution was in need of humiliation. They then found a point that supported their interpretation. Instead of gathering like ants, they were catching like spiders. Because other students didn’t know the method, they didn’t see the bias. That’s why I overhead comments like, “But what the white students said was true. ... I even looked it up.”

Teaching students to recognize the distinction between deductive and inductive reasoning outside of science class is particularly important because deductive reasoning is becoming more and more common. The internet has put this method of understanding the world on steroids. Social media and search engines are engineered to prioritize information or communities that confirm ideas, regardless of their merit. 

Inductive reasoning is harder than deductive reasoning. It asks us to hold off our conclusions as we gather information. It encourages us to look at individuals and dial back the stereotypes. We have to patiently witness the world and let go of stories. It requires modesty, and it gently warns us that nature is a bit chaotic. An inductive approach to social justice gathers information from history and economics, sociology and political science. It reveals mountains of reasons for inequality in our society.

All of us can benefit from an emphasis on inductive reasoning. But deductive reasoning has value, as well. At times, it may be the most helpful approach for students struggling to understand their identities. 

In her book Another Mother Tongue, poet Judy Grahn shows how deductive reasoning can help build up young LGBTQ people. Like many of the great stories of awakening, the book describes Grahn’s gradual realization that the world had bound her up in a web of negative interpretations of queerness. And it describes her discovery of a different frame. 

Grahn takes a deductive approach, searching for evidence to show the value of queer people. When she does, she finds symbols, historical accounts and ethnographies that lead her to learn the untold stories of great LGBTQ leaders, poets and teachers, as well as the special creative and mediating roles that LGBTQ people have played in human communities throughout history. She describes this new awareness as a place of power from which she becomes the heroine of her own story.

Aphorisms of equity—“Black is beautiful,” “I am part of everything” and “Bisexuality is valid,” for example—are good starting points for deductive reasoning. They are healthy hypotheses that invite individuals to recognize positive facts of different identities. They help build a web of protection in environments that present unhealthy interpretations or foreground disparaging facts. 

In this sense, we see the power of deductive reasoning. It points us beyond the welter of details, what all the different voices are saying. It leads us to powerful truths beyond the little anthills we build with our anecdotes or internet searches. 

Too often, we think of social justice education as the domain of humanities educators—what students learn in history and literature classes. But science education, at its heart, is about teaching students the methods they’ll use to understand the world around them. Why shouldn’t we ask them to look up from anthills and spiderwebs and use what we’ve taught them to understand themselves and each other a little better, too?

Vogel is a science educator and course designer at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama.