What is evidence? Thinking about Serial and science

What is evidence? In science, usually we think of evidence as a collection of the observations, measurements, and results of data analysis from an investigation of a phenomenon. But I think evidence isn’t just a set of these measurements. In order for it to be evidence and not just data, there also needs to be information about its relevance and appropriateness to answering a question or a claim. You can think of good evidence (data that was collected in a careful and thoughtful way and that supports your claim) or bad evidence (sloppily collected data, incomplete data, and/or data that doesn’t support your claim).

The podcast Serial came up during one of my research meetings today. We were talking through a transcript of a middle school science classroom and debating whether or not to apply one of codes to a particular utterance the teacher made. The topic of evidence was brought up and it made me think of Serial and how evidence is discussed on the show and how it is similar in a lot of ways to how we want students to talk about evidence in their science classes.

I think by now, almost everyone in the English-speaking world has at least heard of Serial. The podcast is fascinating from a lot of perspectives, but one thing in particular that I have taken away from it is how they talk about evidence on the show. Today’s show in particular explicitly called out the difference between compelling evidence for a person listening to (or creating) the show and compelling evidence from the perspective of a court of law (I think specifically Sarah Koenig compared her “reasonable doubt” with the “reasonable doubt” in a courtroom).

It got me thinking a lot about compelling evidence in science, specifically students learning in a science classroom, and how this might be different than compelling evidence presented to the public or presented to other scientists at a conference.

One thing that students traditionally struggle with is explicitly connecting the evidence to the claim that they are trying to make about a phenomenon. Sometimes this step is called using scientific reasoning, but the main idea is that students talk about why this evidence is appropriate to helping to address this claim. This typically involves reasoning based on knowledge of scientific principles and an understanding of how the data were collected and related phenomena.

Sometimes professional scientists don’t call out this specific step because they are among their peers and it is assumed that everyone understands why these particular data are relevant to answering a question. But in science class, it’s important that students make this connection explicit. Partly because not all of their peers might understand the underlying connection and we want to make their knowledge visible to the class, but also because the students themselves may not fully understand the importance of understanding the limitations and theories underlying the collection of their data.

One of the things I like the most about Serial is how upfront it is about uncertainty, conscious and unconscious bias of sources, and being really clear about the nature of the limited data that is available about the case. Each piece of data is unpacked and dissected and the corresponding assumptions about its relevance and accuracy are discussed. Some data might become evidence for one theory, but if a new piece of evidence is discovered it could change how the first group of data are viewed.

Although the circumstances are very different in a lot of ways, this is pretty similar to how science works. We ask students to cite relevant evidence and think critically about the sources of evidence and what scientific reasoning helps support why that evidence supports a particular claim. Maybe this fascinating piece of non-fiction storytelling can inspire more science learners to think carefully about what evidence is.

Author: cynthiadangelo

I am a researcher, working on educational games, science education, and data visualization. I like photography, soccer, traveling, and teaching my dog new tricks.

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