Don’t Believe Everything I Teach You!

Pamela Close

The most important thing I can teach you, as a learner in my classroom, is that I don’t have all the answers in biology. Even if I give you a direct answer, citing the generally accepted explanation today, by tomorrow, it might be shown to be wrong!

The take-home message is ‘Don’t take my word for it!’ Science, especially biology is incredibly dynamic. Any arbitrary criterion that a student might learn in a biology class is begging for an exception. In fact, as soon as an explanation for a phenomenon is universally accepted and published in a textbook, one can lay odds that a study is already underway that will identify an alternative mechanism or an exception to the ‘rule.’ The conventional wisdom that people shouldn’t believe everything a politician says, is also true of science teachers, however with a major caveat.

Unlike politicians, we will tell you upfront not to trust us, but trust science as a way of finding out the truth. And what constitutes the truth is always under construction. It will almost certainly change as we devise new ways to answer questions about the natural world without introducing misleading bias into our results.

Carl Sagan elegantly articulated the unattainable but worthy pursuit of the scientist: “Humans may crave absolute certainty; they may aspire to it; they may pretend, as partisans of certain religions do, to have attained it. But the history of science — by far the most successful claim to knowledge accessible to humans — teaches that the most we can hope for is successive improvement in our understanding, learning from our mistakes, an asymptotic approach to the Universe, but with the proviso that absolute certainty will always elude us.”1

Scientists, and others in science-related professions (including teachers,) are acutely aware that we chase a moving target of comprehensive understanding of our field, even within the narrow slices of the discipline in which we specialize. But the same unattainable goal is also what fuels our passion and sustains us in our pursuit. As a student of science, you must accept that you will never ‘know it all’ nor even come close. But you will be able to build skills and a knowledge base and contribute your ideas and efforts to building the collective understanding of your chosen question. A diversity of viewpoints moves humanity forward. Your contribution is of value.

A word of caution, however: Many aspiring problem-solvers have stumbled along the path of discovery by allowing healthy introspection and respect for one’s limits to develop into paralyzing self-doubt. As you move forward in training, assimilating the bank of content knowledge and development of skills in preparation for a career in science (or any other discipline), you may experience imposter syndrome. This condition is often described as an overwhelming sense that one is vastly unprepared for the professional task ahead and that others will be able to immediately sense your ‘nakedness’ behind the façade of pseudo-confidence.

Understand that anyone who submits to periodic honest self-assessment will find themselves in this internal dialogue. Based upon anecdotal evidence gathered from personal experience, and conversations with colleagues in science and science education, this anxiety is not restricted to novices but equally afflicts seasoned professionals.

In science, perseverance - accompanied by honest reflection and acknowledgement of one’s limits - moves the investigator forward. Arrogance and false confidence in scientific pursuits may work against the pursuit of truth, blinding a researcher to an alternative explanation. A student of nature who can accept the uncertainty of obtaining a definitive answer to a scientific question within their lifetime, but who enjoys the excitement of ‘the chase,’ has found a true and satisfying vocation.

1. Sagan, C., & Druyan, A. (1995). The Demon-haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Random House; as quoted in Popova, Maria; Brainpickings

Pam Close is an AP Biology Teacher at Hickman High School in Columbia, MO. She arrived at teaching as a second career 22 years ago. She continues to learn from her students, colleagues, and nature, and is finally at peace with never having the final answer to a biological question.