Teaching Science with Seeking Good Debate

This teaching guide is for anyone teaching courses that involve science in American public life. Such courses might have titles like Science and Society, Science Communication, Sociology of Science, History of Science, Introduction to Science and Technology Studies, Science and Media, Science and American Democracy, or Science in Public. Because Seeking Good Debate brings together perspectives from many disciplines, it is relevant for courses offered in many different academic departments, including (but not limited to) Sociology, Political Science, Communication, Science and Technology Studies, American Studies, and Media Studies.

The Pitch

Science is a huge part of American life, both public and private. Many books have considered what science and scientists ought to be doing in public life. But Seeking Good Debate is the first book to combine a large-scale empirical study of what scientific elites say and do in American public debate with in-depth research into what ordinary Americans really want to see happen. Seeking Good Debate is unique in showing how patterns in public debate influence individual perceptions and opinions about science and scientists in America. If you want to understand how science in public actually works, you need to read Seeking Good Debate.

Before We Begin

First, thanks for considering Seeking Good Debate for your course!

Second, an administrative note. If you’re interested in an examination copy of Seeking Good Debate, or you’ve already adopted the book for your course and would like a desk copy, here’s where you go to get those: UC Press Exam & Desk Copy Request for Seeking Good Debate.

Third, a personal note. There are as many ways to teach Seeking Good Debate as there are teachers. As a teacher myself, I thought a lot about learning objectives, reading assignments, class exercises, related readings, media resources, and discussion questions while writing the book. I’ve created these teaching guides to give you some ideas about how to use Seeking Good Debate in your courses. But these guides aren’t meant to be definitive. I hope that you do whatever works best for you and your students!

How Should I Use This Guide?

I wrote this guide to be consistent with “backward design” principles. So if you scroll down the page, you’ll first see a list of sample learning objectives. Maybe start by selecting a few that fit your course best. Then with those in mind, review the reading assignment suggestions and corresponding discussion questions to see what material is most appropriate to support your course and learning objectives. After doing that you’ll probably have a good sense of which parts of Seeking Good Debate are right for you. For more ideas on activities and supplemental material, you can keep scrolling down to the sample in-class exercise, the sample group project, some media resource suggestions, and suggestions for related reading on various topics. Mix and match as appropriate!

Or you can just jump right to the part that interests you:

Sample Learning Objectives

Please feel free to pick and choose from these sample learning objectives, or create your own! The numbers are solely for reference throughout this teaching guide.

Students will be able to:

  1. explain how and why public debate is important in democratic societies
  2. provide appropriate examples of representatives taking different approaches to public debate
  3. define and explain significance of “credibility” for science and for scientists
  4. describe differences in public strategies between scientists and science advocates
  5. explain historical shifts in public representation by American scientific elites
  6. demonstrate how differences in seeking public credibility generate different perceptions of science among ordinary Americans
  7. propose alternative public strategies that are consistent with empirical evidence

Which Chapters Should I Assign, and Why?

What you assign depends a lot on the level and focus of the course. If you’re teaching a graduate seminar in science communication or STS, for example, I recommend assigning the whole book and working through its key arguments from start to finish. But for undergraduate courses, I suggest shorter reading assignments that clearly support learning objectives. Here are some suggestions:

First, set the stage for the rest of the readings with Chapter 1: Rethinking Religion and Science. Chapter 1 shows how to think about problems in religion and science debates as part of larger problems with public debate rather than problems between religion and science, focusing in particular on the constitutive power that public representatives have to shape public understanding of institutions and issues. Chapter 1 supports learning objectives 1, 2, and 3 directly, and lays the groundwork for other learning objectives.

Author’s Tip: Figure 1 shows how all the parts of the book fit together, which can be helpful for learners (and teachers!) who want to see the big picture right away.

Discussion questions for Chapter 1:

Next, read Chapter 4: Representatives and Good Debate to see what representatives in public life actually say and do. Chapter 4 shows that for the most visible representatives in these debates, good debate means advancing an agenda. While a few representatives attempt to engage in more deliberative public talk, the highest visibility representatives of religion and science (and other social institutions) consistently pursue advocacy rather than deliberative debate. Chapter 4 supports learning objectives 2 and 5 directly, and lays the groundwork for learning objectives 3, 4, and 6.

Discussion questions for Chapter 4:

Now it’s time to dive deep on the science-specific material! Read both Chapter 8: Faceless Science: Scientific Credibility in the Public Sphere and Chapter 9: Science and Bad Debate. Chapter 8 shows that the dominant model of scientific credibility depends on separating the public credibility of science from any individual scientist, so scientists avoid the public sphere. Yet, with few exceptions, ordinary people are not “antiscience” in any meaningful way, even if they hold religious or other moral commitments that explicitly conflict with scientific claims. But Chapter 9 shows that this model of scientific credibility shapes the possibility for good debate in the future. Public defense of science by science representatives runs counter to what ordinary people expect, leaving science particularly susceptible to challenge in public debate. Chapters 8 and 9 directly support learning objectives 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

Discussion questions for Chapters 8 and 9:

Finally, read Chapter 10: The Future of Religion and Science in American Public Life. Chapter 10 considers the root causes of problems for religion and science in American public life, and identifies several possible future strategies for religion and science in future debate. Chapter 10 directly supports learning objective 7.

Discussion questions for Chapter 10:

And you’re done! Of course you can change this up however you like. To expand on these readings, add chapter 5 alongside Chapter 4. To shorten the readings further, teach the important points from Chapter 4 but skip that reading assignment. Or just pick the chapters that support your chosen learning objectives.

Finally, while I of course recommend reading as much as possible, I recognize that not everyone will be able to commit to teaching the main argument of Seeking Good Debate. So if you just want one selection for your course involving science, I suggest assigning Chapters 8 and 9 to cover recent developments and consequences in American science and public life.

Sample In-Class Exercise

Chapter 9 contains the results of an interview exercise in which I presented anonymized quotes from public scientific figures on 3×5 cards, and respondents told me what they thought about them. This is easy to reproduce in a classroom setting in a few minutes with a bit of preparation. It’s a good active learning exercise, and gets students thinking about how their assessments of religious talk compare to those of the respondents in the study.

Prep: Find a few quotes from public scientific figures with different backgrounds (e.g. Richard Dawkins, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, etc). Print each quote onto 3×5 cards, but do not indicate the source. Make enough 3×5 cards so that each student will get one quote on a card.

In-class: Distribute 3×5 cards to students. (I recommend counting off 1,2,3 and distributing cards so no two adjacent students get same quote). Then do a Think-Pair-Share exercise:

Sample Group Project

A good way for students to learn from each other while demonstrating their understanding of Seeking Good Debate is to have them work in groups outside of class to create and present a strategy for achieving public credibility. (I highly recommend keeping groups small, preferably no more than 4 to a group.) Here is one way to structure that project, though you will need to add your own appropriate grading rubric:

Summary: Seeking Good Debate shows that public credibility is important for American science. But Seeking Good Debate also demonstrates that the structure of public debate limits future possibilities for science in American public life. Drawing on your understanding of the reading, and on your own creative abilities, work with a group of your classmates to create a strategy for a particular scientific group that will help them achieve or maintain public credibility.


What Media Resources Do You Suggest?

There are so many! But I’ll suggest two that might be particularly useful. If you find others that are useful, please let me know!

First, I’ve found that students benefit from hearing scientific elites describe their own strategies in their own words. It helps show what scientific elites think that they’re doing, not just what you (or I, or Seeking Good Debate) say that they’re doing. In this short clip, Neil DeGrasse Tyson challenges Richard Dawkins on the educational value of Dawkins’s public rhetorical style, with Dawkins’s response:

Second, the concept of “credibility” is sometimes difficult to convey without concrete examples, so I also often show videos promoting scientific organizations or ideas or events, and ask students to note how specific elements of the video such as setting, location, word choice, spokesperson, and credentials attempt to build credibility for whatever is being promoted. Watch and ask: what do people do and say to seem more credible? This video of a debate between Bill Nye (the Science Guy) and Ken Ham has been a productive example in classes I’ve taught:

What Related Readings Do You Suggest?

If you want to connect Seeking Good Debate to broader issues around science and public life:

If you want to connect Seeking Good Debate to current issues in science, politics, and democracy:

If you want to connect Seeking Good Debate to historical and sociological arguments about science and religion: