The Last Word: Trish Morris

Trish Morris is Assistant Professor of Behavioral Science

This election year, so far, has done little to improve my opinion of the tenuous relationship between politics and science. In fact, candidates have me asking myself increasingly ridiculous questions: Is our educational system so troubled and sex education so lacking that someone can serve on the House Committee on Science and Technology without knowing basic facts about human reproduction? When large crowds cheer for politicians as they brag about getting bad grades in school, are we basically saying that we don’t place high value on our politicians being well-educated and intellectually curious? Do I really, seriously, live in a society where an exceptional intellect and education gets politicians labeled untrustworthy, elitist snobs?

When empirical data goes against a politician’s desire or personal belief, they too often seek to discredit years of scientific research by referencing untested theories, folklore or even disproven information. As social and behavioral scientists, my colleagues and I are often faced with situations where we hoped our research would yield data that neatly agree with our hypothesis, but the data simply doesn’t align with our hopes. If trial after trial contradicts our hypothesis, we cannot hold on to our initial beliefs. We have to adjust our thinking and accept what the data is telling us. Politicians too often pander to the wishful thinking of interest groups looking to justify their stance rather than carefully analyzing complex social issues and developing policy based in established scholarship.

If the United States hopes to remain a leader in scientific and technological discovery, we cannot allow ourselves to be governed by politicians who try to ignore scientific fact. This, of course, does not mean that we should never question the credibility of scientists or their conclusions. We cannot ignore flaws in scientific practice or the role that science has played in supporting unsavory political views throughout American history. Segregationists, for example, relied on science to support views of racial superiority. While the methodological flaws of this pseudo-scientific research are glaring to us today, they were not so obvious then. As a professor of research methodology and statistics, one of my key roles has been to help undergraduate and graduate students to think hard about what their data is telling them and to appreciate not only the promise of science but the limits as well.

As a sociologist, I have spent years of my career teaching students how to critically evaluate not just what we know about society, but how we know what we know about society. As a faculty member in the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Drury, I am proud to teach courses in our “scientific core” because of our strong focus on creativity, scientific integrity, professional ethics, rigorous standards of proof, and critical thinking. As an educator at Drury, I know I am not alone in my desire to graduate engaged citizens, who not only have a broad interdisciplinary knowledge base, but also a strong intellectual curiosity. It is my greatest hope that our students have the courage to stand up and demand the same from their political leaders.