Becoming a Critical Thinker in the Time of Epidemics and Pandemics

Jacqueline Miller, Consultant

Every 12 to 18 months a new epidemic of infectious disease erupts somewhere in the world. Most of these epidemics remain contained within the small areas where they originated but the ubiquity of air travel has increased the movement of people, and therefore infectious diseases, considerably. Accompanying this movement has been the ongoing concern that a localized epidemic could become a threat to nations far from the epicenter of the infectious disease.  Viruses causing diseases such as HIV, SARS, MERS, and influenza have sickened and killed millions around the world. But except for the great influenza pandemic of 1918, which killed as many as 100 million people, no infectious disease has spread so rapidly and disrupted everyday life so dramatically and globally as COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.  

Regardless of the scale, reports of deadly epidemics often result in fear and panic in populations that may not even be at risk, engendering behaviors that are inappropriate to the disease and out of proportion to the risk. A recent example of these behaviors occurred with the Ebola epidemics in 2014. Despite the fact that an epidemic of Ebola in the United States was highly unlikely, basic social functions were disrupted: businesses closed their doors, travel was cancelled, and students were kept home and out of school. Even when the population is at serious risk of sickness and death, as with COVID-19, many people are confused and bewildered, wondering how to protect themselves, questioning measures put in place based on scientific knowledge, and fearing the future.

Much of this behavior can be attributed to a lack of basic understandings about infectious diseases—what they are, what causes them, how they spread, and how they can be prevented and treated. Misinformation and misconceptions perpetuated by folklore, scientifically inaccurate ideas on the Internet, bias media, and even our legislative leaders compound the problem. 

In 2015, the National Science Foundation provided funding to EDC to develop a web-based set of four instructional modules and resources on infectious diseases. The modules use the Ebola epidemics in 2014, the measles outbreaks in 2015, and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 as the overarching narrative for providing middle and high school students with a comprehensive understanding of infectious diseases, the agents that cause them, how infectious diseases are spread, and how they can be controlled and prevented.  While providing students with core concepts related to infectious disease and their spread, on a broader scale the modules are designed to help students develop critical thinking skills including the ability to collect information, analyze and evaluate its validity, accuracy, and relevance, use this information to explain the evidence that supports an idea or statement, and apply this information to solve a problem or take action.  In science, a student can use these skills to become an “informed skeptic”, that is an individual who has the capability to question a claim and assess its legitimacy using logic and scientific evidence.

Science courses in general, and biology courses in particular, are often content driven and fact heavy. Students must have a foundation in the big ideas of science and an understanding of how scientific research provides evidence to support and expand these ideas. Because almost everyone has access to masses of information and misinformation on their electronic devices, it is incumbent on science education to focus on teaching students the critical thinking skills they need to access and use information accurately and productively. These skills are not only important in responding to future epidemics that will undoubtedly occur, but also in making decisions in other science related areas such as climate change, genetic engineering, when life begins, and evolution. The possession of these skills is the hallmark of a science literate citizenry, one capable of making informed choices in personal and policy decisions.