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Scaling up the SENCER solution to the "self-measurement paradox"

I wasn’t kidnapped by aliens (outerspace or undocumented) last week but I nevertheless had an experience that was just as interesting.

I attended the annual SENCER—Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities--Summer Institute.

This was my second Summer Instiute-- I wrote home about my experience last yr too. 

Basically, the raison d'etre of this super cool organization is to obliterate the “self-measurement paradox”: the bizarre and scandalous failure of professions that traffic in scientific knowledge to use science's signature methods of producing knowledge to assess and refine their own craft norms.

(In what one might have suspected was clever self-parody but for the earnest intelligence with which the information was presented and the seriousness with which it was received, the Institute opened with a great 15-minute session on the latest data on effective notetaking strategies--so that we could be sure to maximize retention of all the insights to be imparted in the ensuing lectures, seminars, and workshops.)

Up to now, SENCER has pursued this mission—relentlessly, doggedly—mainly in the domain of science & math instruction.

Its members are constantly creating, testing, tweaking, and sharing their experiences with teaching techniques (grading ones too) and tools for empirically assessing them.

A highlight at this yr’s Institute was a status report from a team at West Point, which is in its third year in a project to “SENCERize” its curriculum.

But lately SENCER has been broadening out. 

It has already made a foray into popular science culture: we heard from KQED's Sue Ellen McCann and Andrea Aust about that flagship PBS station's use of empirical methods to make their programs as engaging and accessible to as large and diverse an audience as possible.

And this year, one of the major themes was how to advance empirical understanding of the processes by which scientific knowledge is recognized and given proper effect in public decisionmaking.

That’s a major interest of mine, of course.  Indeed, what made me so excited about the program last year was the prospect of using the “SENCER model” (which itself involves creating models for adaptation and use by others) to bridge the the unconscionable gap  between the practices of science and science-informed policymaking, on the one hand, and the science of science communication, on the other.

So I was really psyched to participate this year in various Institute programs dedicated to focusing SENCER membrers’ attention on this objective.

There were various sessions relating, essentially, to the need for developing an "evidence based" politics in support of evidence-based policymaing.

I played a lead role in three.

In one, I oversaw participants’ engagement with a pair of “vaccine risk case studies” (materials here).

Case study number 1 featured the introduction of the HPV vaccine into the U.S.  The materials were designed to enable participants to assess who knew what about what—including other relevant actors’ intentions—as of late 2005.

Merck, manufacturer of the HPV vaccine Garadosil, was then planning to apply for fast-track FDA approval a girls-only HPV shot.

It was also seeking the assistance of the womens’ groups to organize a nationwide press for adoption of state legislation mandating vaccination (of girls) as a condition of middle school enrollment.

Women’s health advocates were trying to figure out whether to accept Merck’s proposal.

Religious and social groups had signaled that they were not opposed to approval of the vaccine but would oppose mandatory vaccination legislation.

At least some public health officials were worried that this process—geared, they thought, to enabling Merck to create a dominant market position for Gardasil before GlaxoSmithKline obtained approval for its rival HPV vassine—was likely to enmesh the HPV vaccine in toxic political controversy.

But what were thos nervous Nellies & Nigels so concerned about?

Just a few years earlier, the CDC had recommended that the the HBV vaccine—for hepatitis-b, also a sexually transmitted disese—be included as a universal childhood vaccination, and nearly all the states had added it to their mandatory school-enrollment schedules without fuss.

In addition, there was survey evidence showing that parents would happily accept the HBV vaccine for their daughters if that’s what their pediatricians recommended.

But sure enough, the FDA's approval of Gardosil for girls only, followed by the CDC's recommendation that the vaccined be added to the universal vaccination schedule and then by the Merck-sponsored legislative campaign ignited a polarizing firestorm of cultural controvesy.  Not only did only 1 state enact an HPV mandate (that would be Virginia, in excange for Merck's promise to build a huge manufacturing plant there; maybe they gave the Governor a Rolex too?), but to this day vaccination rates remains anemic (not only for girls but for boys, too; the vaccine was approved for them just 3 yrs approval for girls) b/c of continuing ambivalence about the shot's safety and efficacy.

Could the relevant actors have reasonably anticipated the controversy that unfolded over 2007-2010?  Whose responsibility was it to try to get more info—and who was supposed to do what with it?

Case study 2 involved childhood vaccinations.

The materials were aimed at assessing whether the relevant players—here, government public health agencies, advocacy groups, medical professional associations, philanthropic groups, and the news media—are responding appropriately now to anxiety over public “vaccine hesitancy” in a manner that takes account of the lessons to be learned from the HPV disaster.

Doesn't look like it to me....

The discussion was great -- I was really impressed by how readily the participants saw the complexity of the issues (aversion to recognition of complexity is actually the root of all social dysfunction, in my view; that's such a simple & obvious point, why argue it?) 

My second session was a keynote talk (slides here) on the “Science Communication Measurement Problem.” I shared with the audience data showing that climate-science communication is hobbled by the failure of those engaged in it to disentangle -- both for purposes of measurement and for purposes of practical action -- people's knowledge from their expression of their cultural identities.

Unsurprisingly, people ooo'ed & ahhhh'ed when I displayed my sexy item response curves!

Finally, there was a session in the nature of a seminar or group discussion about how to leverage to the political realm insights that science educators. formal and informal, have acquired about promoting public engagement with controversial science issues.

Science teachers, museum directors, and extension professionals, among others, all shared their experiences with the phenomenon of  knowledge-identity “entanglement”--and techniques they've used to dissolve it. 

We came away with a rich set of conjecture—and a shared sense of resolve to test them with structured, empirical research programs.

Beyond that, we had nothing in common--no disciplinary or insitutional affiliations, no set of cultural commitments, no cause.  

Believe it or not, that's why I find SENCER so inspiring.

The talented and passionate people who are part of SENCER, I've learned, care about only one thing: using science to dispel any obstacle to the acquisition of scientific knowledge by free and reasoning individuals--students, professionals, educators, citizens--to use as they see fit.

The spirit of SENCER is a monument to the affinity of science and liberal values. 

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Reader Comments (4)

That's a very glowing tribute to SENCER. You were obviously very impressed.

My curiosity was tweaked by that image box describing their 'Engaging Mathematics' programme.

"The Engaging Mathematics (EM) three-year initiative aims to significantly increase the use of the SENCER model, and other progressive pedagogies, ..."

'Progressive'? Hmm. That's a word whose meaning has changed over the years.

"... with the goal of using civic issues to make math more relevant to students."

Oh yes? "Civic issues"?

That sounds a bit like the phenomenon I've heard some people muttering about, where left-wing politics is being inserted into the school curriculum, even in what were formerly 'hard science' subjects. The examples, illustrations, and exercises, it was said, were based around a particular political agenda, that encouraged practising activism (mock or real) as classroom activities, and which the scoring system required you to go along with or you'd get low marks. There are complaints from parents about their kids coming home and lecturing them on their lack of conformity to approved environmentally responsible behaviour. There are more complaints about them coming home with their heads filled with an activist agenda and all the latest politically correct opinions, but progressively worse technical knowledge and capability in the subject they were supposed to be learning - mathematics or whatever. There are stories of kids going to university unable to add or multiply properly.

I don't know how true it all is. I've certainly seen some very 'odd' questions on the published exam papers over here, and the erosion of educational standards and 'grade inflation' in the UK are widely discussed and appear to have some truth to them. I've heard of the same sort of concerns and discussions in the US. Is it possible that SENCER may be in that business? Surely not?!

So I had a look. There are lots of courses, an awful lot of them seem to be on environmentalism, but not exclusively. And of course, it is a scientific discipline in itself. So how about pure mathematics? They have a course called "Ordinary Differential Equations in Real World Situations" - that should be good. What does the blurb say?

"This course for junior and senior math majors uses mathematics, specifically the ordinary differential equations as used in mathematical modeling, to analyze and understand a variety of real-world problems. Among the civic problems explored are specific instances of population growth and over-population, over-use of natural resources leading to extinction of animal populations and the depletion of natural resources, genocide, and the spread of diseases, all taken from current events."

... ohboy ...

Elsewhere it describes their programme thus:
"The models also advance institutional aspirations to connect learning and other goals, such as fostering interdisciplinary understanding, increasing civic engagement and personal responsibility, and helping students develop more refined ethical sensibilities leading to improved personal choices and behavior."

... ohhhboy ...

A class on differential equations is aimed at developing "more refined ethical sensibilities leading to improved personal choices and behavior"?! On "over-population" and "over-use of natural resources"?

All perfectly innocent and cherry-picked out of context, I'm sure. But thinking more generally and hypothetically - when developing methods that many advocacy activists see as applicable to political persuasion, are there moral and ethical issues around applying them to the vulnerable minds of children? What safeguards are in place to prevent the unconscious identity-protective biases of educators in strong power/authority relationships with students accidentally contaminating STEM education with a lop-sided political agenda? Would you feel the same way about it if it was an overtly right-wing agenda being used for examples and exercises? Or do people think it already is?

Does anyone have any thoughts on the subject? What ethical safeguards should/do researchers and educators apply?


Glad to hear you wasn't kidnapped by outerspace aliens last week! Excellent news!

August 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNiV


The Carleton course seems to be using topics in conservation science & public health to frame instruction on mathematical modeling. There are "political" implications & dimensions to such models; but there's nothing particularly partisan about modeling -- you could make a good living doing this sort of thing for agribusiness or commercial fisheries, if you chose.

The quote on "ethical sensibiliteis" doesn't appear in the course description you are quoting from -- or in anything else I can find having to do w/ teaching differential equations.

But in your view, is focusing on "ethics" partisan?

The ethics I recall being discussed in the programs I attended related to two things. One was the obligation of teachers to unburden acquisition of knowledge from any expectation -- or perception of expectation -- that students would reach particular conclusions on practical issues that need to be informed by scientific evidence.

Other was the obligation to make science courses as accessible to religiously oriented as nonreligously oriented students so that there wouldn't be a disparity in the opportunity to acquire such knowledge. People discussed the models that arleady exist on how to do this in teaching evolution & how those might be extended & adapted to otgher culturally charged issues.

One of the reasons this is such a challenge is that some bright students will understandably start w/ strong predisposition to impute illiberal ambitions to educators, and will use their intelligence to selectively construe evidence, & to search for more, consistent with this prior expectation.

Another toxic byproduct of our polluted science communication environment that we need tested & testable models to address.

Maybe you yourself have observed this? & the stifling effect it can have on acquisition of knowledge? Perhaps even you have ideas about how to exorcise this sad form of distrust?

August 6, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

"There are "political" implications & dimensions to such models; but there's nothing particularly partisan about modeling -- you could make a good living doing this sort of thing for agribusiness or commercial fisheries, if you chose."

Indeed. Modelling could be applied to topics on all sides. But is it? And although in principle you ought to be able to learn the technique equally well from a politically partisan application, in practice it's liable to invoke identity-correlated biases. One half the class are motivated to support the conclusion and therefore less critical about the logic than they need to be. The other half of the class are feeling alienated and distracted by the motivation to find faults where there are none. There is a risk they will reject or mistrust the validity of the technique because they don't like the conclusions.

If you are trying to teach people how to objectively distinguish a riot from a protest, say, then giving them a political background to the problem disables their ability to do so. If you're trying to teach the Bayesian interpretation of experiments, you get better results applying the method to skin cream than gun control.

That's why the standard approach is to teach technique abstractly in a neutral setting, and then once students understand and trust the technique, you can perhaps give them practice in setting aside their prejudices with more partisan presentations.

"But in your view, is focusing on "ethics" partisan?"

Not as such, no. But how do you define "ethics"? Are you talking about all ethical systems in the abstract, looked on from the outside, or do you mean "ethical" as judged by a partisan following one system, from the inside? It's like 'religious education', which once used to mean teaching children their own religion, and nowadays means teaching children about religion in the abstract - the range of religious beliefs and the implications for society of disagreements between them. 'Ethical education' could be interpreted in the same two ways. Are you trying to teach children to be ethical? (And by whose standard?) Or are you teaching children about ethical systems and what it means for society?

The concern I've heard people elsewhere raise is that educationalists are doing the former. I can't tell from the material available which SENCER are doing - the examples I picked were just a way to illustrate and motivate the discussion - but I'm curious in general terms whether it is recognised as an issue in the community and what measures are being taken to deal with it.

"The ethics I recall being discussed in the programs I attended related to two things..."

Both of those sound good, particularly in combination.

"One of the reasons this is such a challenge is that some bright students will understandably start w/ strong predisposition to impute illiberal ambitions to educators, and will use their intelligence to selectively construe evidence, & to search for more, consistent with this prior expectation."

:-) Indeed!

That's another good reason why starting a lecture on differential equations with a lot of guff about the planet being over-populated and resources running out is liable to result in the rolling of eyes around the classroom! It seems to be the reaction of a lot of the young people I know who have just emerged from the educational system. They're cynical.

Yes, sometimes we selectively construe evidence and look for more. But sometimes they make it very easy to find. How do you come up with an objective measure?

"Maybe you yourself have observed this? & the stifling effect it can have on acquisition of knowledge? Perhaps even you have ideas about how to exorcise this sad form of distrust?"

It's a slightly different topic, since it's talking about social psychology rather than education, but I've been reading an interesting paper by Duarte et al. that has some suggestions (in section 6) that ought to be more generally applicable.

Put simply, you treat it like all the other diversity issues. You raise awareness, make policy, measure progress, and seek engagement with and input from minorities on what their issues are and how to improve things. Liberal academics have been studying such methods for years - they've just not thought to apply those lessons and principles to conservatives, considered as a minority.

It may be just my perception, but you already seem to be pretty good at it. You've been a lot more patient with my views and contributions here than I think a lot of liberal academics would be. That's one reason that I thought you might have developed some views.

I think that if it's recognised as an issue, it would be relatively straightforward to develop measures to deal with it. The question is: is it recognised as an issue? Does anyone discuss it, or have any policy on it? I think you've answered that, to the extent that you know, for which I thank you.

August 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Hello - I am one of the partners listed on the Engaging Mathematics Project. To clarify, the website for the project is

Please be patient as we build content for the site - the project is in the initial stages.

Some examples of projects that we are working on are:
- Developing curricula so students in a general education mathematics course can explore ideas from the frontiers of mathematics
- Using contextual examples from the city to illustrate fundamental concepts of statistics.

These are some of the "Engaging Mathematics" being developed, among others.

From my experiences students respond to these contextual examples, leading to further study of mathematics, or renewing their confidence in their own quantitative reasoning skills.

We are very excited to be working on this project. Thanks again!

August 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Zobitz

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