Science Says

By Zach Mural

No matter what our place is on the political spectrum, if we live and work in the United States, we exist in a world of facts, and “alternative facts.” Having worked with young people for the better part of the last 25 years, I’m used to some alternative facts when it comes to who did or said what. As an educator and researcher, I hold firm beliefs about what is fact, what is assumed but not “provable,” and what is opinion. Given the current times, a discussion of how we know what we know, and more importantly how it guides our work with youth, may be of benefit to a number of readers.

Science And Youth Work
Not everyone who chooses to work with young people is compelled to subject themselves to the time, expense, and series of painfully slow gains that define graduate school. And that’s probably a good thing for the youth we serve. We don’t, in fact, need to have participated in advanced studies to be effective evaluators and consumers of research and accepted theories of child and youth development.

As a field, youth work is not as affected by the latest development or discovery as many other industries. Much of what we do resembles what has been going on in park and rec departments for many years. That said, there have been new developments that should (and do) impact how and what we do with young people. For example, the recent work on repetitive brain injury has changed how we expose children to football. More globally, studies on the underlying causes and effects of childhood obesity have shifted focus in some programs to healthy eating and lifestyle choices. Both of these examples have been informed by significant scientific evidence and the resulting agreement among scholars who shared their findings.

Undoubtedly, more advances will come, and it is incumbent on us to understand what is accepted as valid, and what is one person’s opinion or personal anecdote. My goal for the rest of this article is to provide some concrete guidance to help recognize the difference between the two so that our programs—and ultimately the youth we serve—have the best possible experiences and outcomes.

Scientifically Speaking
In any scientific community, the term “theory” means something very different from how it is used in everyday conversations. We all have theories about why certain events occurred, the best way to prepare a certain food, or what someone really meant when they shot off a snarky email. In everyday use, “theory” is used interchangeably with “guess” or “idea.” In science, a theory is a generally accepted notion that is supported by the preponderance of available data and evidence.

Some examples of scientifically accepted theories include the evolution over time of biological organisms, healthy lifestyle choices that benefit individuals, and space and time that are interwoven into space-time. A significant body of data and evidence back all of these examples, but none of them can be unequivocally “proven” at this time. Let’s take a more detailed look at the second (and probably least controversial) example of lifestyle choices.

Study after study has shown that eating well, getting enough exercise and sleep, and avoiding/limiting exposure to toxins (including nicotine and alcohol) are all correlated with improved health outcomes. That said, there are examples of people who have poor diets, never exercise, and smoke two packs of cigarettes a day who live well into their 90’s. So, does the existence of a counter-example (or as scientists refer to them as an “outlier”) disprove the theory that healthy lifestyle choices generally lead to better outcomes? Of course not!

Scientific consensus occurs when an overwhelming majority of evidence points to a single and logical conclusion. Yes, there are likely to be outliers even in the scientific community, but when the overwhelming majority of those who fully understand the nuances and experimental or inquiry techniques used to gather the data or evidence agree, we can be relatively assured that the theory is solid (like the repetitive brain injury example I mentioned earlier).

Let’s look at one more example—human impact on climate. A number of groups and individuals do not “believe” in the impact of humans on the changing climate. That said, 98 percent of scientists who are experts in the field agree that carbon emissions have (and continue to have) an impact on the environment and weather. The 2 percent who disagree see the data differently, and that is okay, and even healthy. However, with such consensus there is global agreement that changes need to happen.

Many of the most vocal skeptics either work with groups or companies that stand to benefit from practices that are detrimental to the long-term health of the planet, or are simply not informed. Imagine we needed a cure for a potentially deadly disease, and 98 percent of doctors said “Drug A” was the best bet. Would we be comfortable going with something else? I expect not, and if over time a new drug was shown to be more effective, then the scientific consensus would change.

What It Means For Us
There may be times when our own personal beliefs or experiences do not fit with an accepted scientific theory. And that’s okay providing we recognize the difference between our belief and opinion, and what science tells us. Responsible youth-development professionals separate their personal and professional lives. What matters is that we stay informed by participating in professional-development activities, reading current articles, and engaging in healthy conversations over current innovations and breakthroughs in the field.

What it also means for us is that we need to be champions for informed and intentional, proactive practices that can enhance the safety and benefits of the programs we offer. If we see something occurring in a program that is at odds with an accepted theory or best practice, it is important that we bring the matter to the attention of the individual (or group) with the authority to rectify the situation.

One of the worst (aka “nightmare”) situations that can occur to anyone who works with youth is to see something that could be done, but we say nothing, and then have to react to an accident, injury, or even worse an unsatisfied participant or parent. The best park and rec departments don’t embrace every new gadget, gizmo, trend, or fashion. Instead, they are staffed by individuals who understand what is and is not, are able to acknowledge and respond to new information in a flexible and proactive matter, and disregard “alternative facts” even if they might reinforce an individual’s personal desires or beliefs. By learning to recognize reliable sources of information, and distinguishing them from those that come from individuals or groups with their own agenda, we can ensure that our youth programs are built on a foundation that will last for years.

Dr. Zachary Mural is an executive-level leader, youth-development professional, and father. He holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology, is the owner of Youth Development Consulting, is VP of Education for The Minnieland Academy Family of Schools in Northern Virginia, and is an ExpertOnlineTraining faculty member. If you have questions or comments, or would like to discuss a possible workshop or training, visit Youthdevelopmentconsulting.com.