First, we cover the topic as it is presented in the course textbook and
lecture. To inspire our classroom activity, I choose a recent news
story and/or case study each semester to illustrate the relationship
of fake news and/or “alternative facts” to the topic. For example, I
have used opinion pieces from The New York Times and The Washington Post to represent opposing views on the scientific consensus surrounding the issue of human-made climate change (Table 1). For the
topic of evolution, I chose articles written about S.B. 55, a highly
contentious bill proposed in South Dakota in 2017 to govern the
teaching of scientific topics in public schools (Table 1). And, to illustrate the role of cultural cognition in shaping public opinion and
policy regarding vaccines, I selected an article describing a 2015
measles outbreak attributed to anti-vaccine alternative facts, as well
as a case study about a government mandate for HPV vaccination
of public school children (Table 1). Incidentally, this case study also
facilitates an intriguing connection to climate change. This is because
Rick Perry, who mandated the HPV vaccine as Governor of Texas,
went on to become the United States Secretary of Energy in 2017,
and his connections to oil companies in this role raised similar concerns to those voiced over his connections to a pharmaceutical company when he required Texas residents to purchase its vaccine.
The next step is to pair these readings with relevant articles
from the Cultural Cognition Project database (culturalcognition.
net) (Table 1). After completing all of the background readings,
the class engages in a group discussion or debate about the role
of cultural cognition in shaping public perception of science. This
learning activity is paired with an analytical and/or reflective writing assignment assigned either before or after the class discussion.
The learning objectives of these activities are threefold: ( i) to
demonstrate knowledge of a scientific concept, ( ii) to synthesize
and justify an argument about a contentious scientific issue, and
(iii) to apply the principles of cultural cognition to evaluate the role
of cultural and political identities in shaping perception of science.
During evaluation of student writing, it was observed that most students clearly described the scientific concept chosen for their writing, and accurately articulated the role of cultural cognition in
shaping public perception of science in a given scenario. However,
the extent of these descriptions was mostly limited to a subset of
the information provided in course materials, and rarely demonstrated extensive original thought or use of additional sources. Similarly, arguments about contentious issues were generally clear and
supported by evidence, but justification was mostly limited to a
subset of the points made in the distributed articles, and attempts
to rebut relevant counterarguments were rare.
Yale University’s Cultural Cognition Project provides a collection of
useful and freely available readings to promote discussion of cultural
cognition, a number of which are referenced in this article. By focus-
ing on recent news stories, the approach described above engages stu-
dents with investigation of cultural cognition while highlighting the
relevance of science to important contemporary issues and to their
everyday lives. In practice, these activities have been consistently
interesting and engaging for students, as evidenced by enthusiastic
participation in class discussions, thorough demonstration of concep-
tual knowledge in associated writing assignments, and positive com-
ments about these activities in course evaluations. Although the
described activities were used only in an undergraduate introductory
biology class for non-majors, with a class size of approximately 25 stu-
dents, this approach can be adapted for a wide range of course types,
levels, and sizes.
Albeck-Ripka, L. (2018, February 21). How six Americans changed their
minds about global warming. The New York Times. Retrieved from
Ferguson, D. (2017, February 2). Panel defeats bill allowing alternative science
theories. Argus Leader. Retrieved from http://www.argusleader.com
Kahan, D. M. (2013). A Risky Science Communication Environment for
Vaccines. Science, 342, 53.
Kahan, D. M. (2015a). Climate-Science Communication and the
Measurement Problem. Political Psychology, 36, 1–43. doi:10.1111/
Kahan, D. M. (2015b). What is the “science of science communication”?
Journal of Science Communication, 14(3), 1–10.
Kahan, D. M. (2017). “Ordinary Science Intelligence”: A Science-Comprehension Measure for Study of Risk and Science
Communication, with Notes on Evolution and Climate Change. Journal
of Risk Research, 20(8). Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/
toc/rjrr20/20/8 or SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2466715
Kahan, D. M., Jamieson, K. H., Landrum, A., & Winneg, K. (2016). Culturally
antagonistic memes and the Zika virus: An experimental test, Journal of
Risk Research, 20:1, 1–40.
McCoy, T. (2015, January 23). The Disneyland measles outbreak and the
disgraced doctor who whipped up vaccination fear. The Washington
Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com
Strauss, V. (February 5, 2017). An “alternative facts” South Dakota bill
sparks fears for science education in the Trump era. The Washington
Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com
Stephens, B. (2017, April 28). Climate of Complete Certainty. The New York
Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/
Vosoughi, S., Roy, D., & Aral, S. (2018). The spread of true and false news
online. Science, 359(6380), 1146–1151.
Will, G. F. (2016, April 22). Scientific silencers on the left are trying to shut
downclimateskepticism.TheWashingtonPost.Re trieved from http://
Zavrel, E., & Herreid, C. F. (2008). Sex and Vaccination. National Center for
Case Study Teaching in Science. Retrieved from http://sciencecases.lib.
KEVIN M. BONNEY ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Clinical Assistant
Professor in Liberal Studies at New York University.