Lucy Hawking: how to teach science in a post-fact world

When the truth is a matter of belief, how do we teach children about science? Through her groundbreaking educational books, Lucy Hawking is determined to give the young the critical skills they need to counter the effects of post-truth politics

The 21st Century is often referred to as the era of post-truth. In the fast-paced digital world, people are showered with information from every angle, from social media to television, brands to newspapers. Fact-checkers can’t keep up, and are often unable to verify information before it reaches the masses. As a result, the lines between fact and fiction are becoming blurred.

These ideas are exemplified in the current political landscape, with many candidates turning to ‘post-fact’ campaigns, appealing to the feelings of voters, while skirting over the truth. As post-truth reigns in the political sphere, there is fear that this way of thinking will challenge the way that we understand science, a field based entirely on theory and fact-based evidence. 

A prominent example is that of climate change. While there is a 97 per cent consensus from scientists on the effects of global warming, there has been a recent wave of climate change deniers – people who refute its very existence and the frightening impact it could have on our future. Sceptical politicians and high-profile celebrities alike have encouraged the masses to look past the factual evidence that human behaviour negatively affects our atmosphere, instead calling for people to focus on what they believe to be true – that the planet is not in danger.

Similar anti-science, post-truth arguments are everywhere, from anti-vaxxers who deny the benefits of vaccines, to rejecters of the Darwinian theory of evolution. Insidiously, this global shift in perception could have dangerous effects on wider society, says Lucy Hawking.

The daughter of one of the world’s most celebrated theoretical physicists, Stephen Hawking, Lucy Hawking collaborates with her father on a series of educational children’s books – fun stories that teach important lessons about physics and the universe.

When we meet at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, Hawking, who started her career as a journalist, tells me that she began writing children’s stories after having a light-bulb moment at a party. A little boy went up to her father and asked him, ‘What would happen if I fell into a black hole?’ “My father’s response was clear," she says, “you'd be turned into spaghetti."

The little boy was delighted at this gory outcome. His enthusiasm for the fascinating nature of the universe gave Hawking an idea: she convinced her father to collaborate with her on a story that takes “elements from the creative world and applies them to scientific information, to make it accessible for young children”.

George’s Secret Key to the Universe, a story about children’s adventures in space and the first in their series of educational books, was groundbreaking in its ability to engage children aged nine and up on the complex topics of theoretical physics. However, Hawking believes that the books have taken on new responsibility in the post-truth era.

If children do not understand science in post-factual society, Hawking says “there is a very large possibility that you will end up with very complex subjects belonging to a super-elite who have a very sophisticated level of understanding,” while the masses remain uniformed. As a result, the application of the work of scientists could easily be manipulated by other people, which Hawking says will be “to the detriment of a mass populace who don’t have any way of understanding, other than believing what they’ve been told.”

For her next project, Hawking chooses to focus not only on science and the universe, but also on “what is it that we teach kids when we teach kids about science”. Rather than simply knowing about the planets and how they work, Hawking insists that children who have scientific knowledge are learning how to critically consume information, and how to formulate their own evidence-based opinions. “What we hope the result of it will be kids making informed decisions.

“There is a significant scientific consensus that climate change is real and that it’s driven by human behaviour,” she says. “This idea that there’s an alternative to that, and that it’s up to you to make a choice whether to believe it, is very, very distressing.” To counter the frightening idea that “that truth is a matter of belief”, Hawking believes that the next generation of thinkers must receive a scientific education and, with it, a set of critical skills.

This is not to say that every child must grow up to be the next Stephen Hawking, says the writer. “Some of these subjects are so complex that you cannot meaningfully simplify them.” However, her aim is for every child to have a basic understanding of the field. A scientifically literate populace can critically assess the floods of information that they are given on a daily basis, without the need for continuous fact checking.

With her final call to action: “We need to make science as engaging as an adventure film,” it is clear that Hawking’s aim is not just to increase engagement with a subject close to her heart – it is born out of a wish for the next generation to take ownership of their perception of the world, creating a vision of the future that is, in all senses, translucent. Child’s play, indeed. 

The 2017 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature takes place from 3-11 March. For more on the festival visit www.emirateslitfest.com