Science and Social Controversy – a Classroom Exercise in Metacognition

by David Westmoreland, U.S. Air Force Academy*

One of the many challenges for science educators is teaching about topics that are largely resolved in the scientific community, yet remain controversial in broader society.  Such topics often make students uncomfortable, and thus meet with resistance to learning (Johnson and Peeples 1987, Byford et al. 2009). When instructors present such topics as no longer under question, students are likely to perceive the teacher as strongly biased to one side of a controversy that they consider to be ongoing.

This conflict of perception arises partly from a lack of a meaningful understanding of how scientific thinking differs from the broader practices of everyday, social thinking.   I have found that explicit instruction on the difference between scientific and social thinking enables students to be more objective when learning about controversial subjects.  In turn, I am better able to break through socially derived barriers to learning (Clough 1994, Sinclair et al. 1997, Shipman et al. 2002).

I introduce this exercise as a metacognitive lab that attempts to answer the question “How do you know?”  I define metacognition for the students,as the effort to understand one’s own thought processes, in addition to understanding the thought processes used by others.   Students are split into small groups of 3-4 individuals seated to foster within-group discussion while minimizing between-group discussion.  Each group is presented with 4-5 of the “Truth” statements listed below.

Students are asked to proceed through each statement, imagining themselves as a person who takes the statement to be true.  What would that person give as his or her basis for accepting its truth?  From this, students compile on the board a “ways of knowing” list.  A typical list, paired with its corresponding “Truth” statement, is shown below.  It is not important that students identify these exact categories of knowledge.  The point of the exercise is to have students recognize that social thinking incorporates a wide variety of thought processes.

“Truth” statement

Typical “Way of Knowing” categories identified by students

Eggs are fragile. Personal experience
The nucleus, which occupies the interior of a cell, is smaller than the cell itself. Logic
Water freezes at 32 degrees F. AuthorityPersonal experience (often listed, then retracted after students realize they have never personally measured the temperature of freezing water)
Everyone has a moral sense. Desire for the statement to be trueAuthorityIntuition
I don’t trust him/her.  (Having just met the person.) Intuition
A higher power is punishing America for its acceptance of sinful lifestyles. AuthorityDesire for the statement to be trueDirect revelation
If a = b and b + 1 = 5, a = 4. Logic
There are ten fundamental rules that a higher power instructs us to live by. Direct revelation (if Moses)Authority (everyone else)
President Obama does not have a valid American birth certificate. AuthorityRumor mill (no identifiable authority, but so often repeated that the statement becomes accepted as truth)
Crystal therapy can restore harmony and peace of mind by clearing negative energy blocks that we have deep within us. AuthorityPersonal experienceDesire for the statement to be true


In the last part of the exercise, students are asked to strike lines through ways of knowing that are not used in science.   Some ways of knowing are eliminated easily (revelation, desire for a thing to be true, rumor mill), while others require deeper analysis.  For example, intuition is used in science for formulating ideas, but not as a basis for concluding that ideas have scientific validity.  Typically, three ways of knowing are left at the end:  authority, logic, and personal experience.

By comparing the ways of knowing used in social thinking to those used in science, one can see why social controversies often persist when a scientific consensus has been reached.  Social thinking incorporates a wider variety of ways of knowing, and is not necessarily grounded in the three tenets of science (Schafersman 1994):  (a) empiricism, a demand for data that can be independently verified; (b) skepticism, a willingness to abandon established conclusions in light of new information; and (c) rationalism, the principle of noncontradiction.

Having prepared students with an introduction to metacognition, I encounter less resistance when teaching theories of evolution, global warming, and genetic engineering.  Having recognized the fundamental differences between scientific and social thinking, students are better able to accept that different conclusions are likely to result from divergent practices in thinking.


Byford, J., Lennon, S., & Russell III, W.B. (2009.)  Teaching controversial issues in the social studies: a research study of high school teachers. The Clearing House 82(4), 165 – 170.

Clough, M. P.  (1994.)  Diminish students’ resistance to biological evolution.  The American Biology. Teacher 56(7), 409 – 415.

Johnson, R. L., & Peeples, E.E.  (1987.)  The role of scientific understanding in college. The American Biology. Teacher 49(2), 93 – 98.

Schafersman, S. D.  (1994.)  An introduction to science: scientific thinking and the scientific method. Available online at:

Shipman, H. L., Brickhouse, N.W., Dagher, Z. & Letts IV, W.J.  (2002.)  Changes in student views of religion and science in a college astronomy course.  Science Education 86(4), 526 – 547.

Sinclair, A., Pendarvis, M.P., & Baldwin, B.  1997.  The relationship between college zoology students’ beliefs about evolutionary theory and religion.  Journal of Research and Development in Education 39(2), 118 – 125.


* Disclaimer: The views expressed in this document are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U. S. Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U. S. Govt.

4 thoughts on “Science and Social Controversy – a Classroom Exercise in Metacognition

  1. John Draeger

    I wonder about the contrast between scientific thinking and social thinking. For example, is social thinking inherently unscientific or lacking in objectivity? I ask because I concede that a great deal of “popular thinking” lacks careful attention to detail and often does not “think things through.” As a result, popular thinking/common thinking will include many misunderstandings, including scientific misunderstandings. Given this fact, I can see how teaching these scientific concepts would be difficult. And it is a reason to be explicit, but I am not sure whether the contrast is between (a) scientific and sloppy popular thinking or (b) scientific and careful thinking that appeals to other sources of evidence (e.g., elements in the chart).

  2. David Westmoreland

    Thanks for the feedback. I struggled with the term that would describe nonscientific thinking and settled on “social thinking” to avoid the value judgment that would be come with “sloppy” or another similar term. Students seem to inherently recognize that problems arise from trust in intuition, limited personal experience, a desire for something to be true, and so.

    The exercise is intended to clarify that science uses a restricted number of ways of knowing, contrasted to the way that people think in everyday life. I think that our inherent ways of thinking are nonscientific, and thus one has to be taught to apply scientific reasoning to questions that are amenable to it. The social controversy over vaccination is an example – most of the vaccination opponents use personal experience (“my daughter developed autism after the MMR shot”), intuition (“you’re putting something unnatural into your body”), authority (“a PhD physician published an article that found a link to autism”), and rumor mill to support their conclusions.

  3. John Draeger

    I think that the last piece is especially useful. Whatever else is true, it is important for us to track and assess our sources of evidence (e.g., intuition, authority, personal experience, chatty neighbor down the block). You exercise is nice because it encourages that habit.

  4. Pingback: Meta-Teaching: Improve Your Teaching While Improving Students’ Metacognition | Improve with Metacognition

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