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Education Science

It's Time To Bring Pseudoscience Into the Science Classroom 470

Posted by timothy
from the for-a-few-object-lessons dept.
Hugh Pickens DOT Com (2995471) writes "'Roughly one in three American adults believes in telepathy, ghosts, and extrasensory perception,' wrote a trio of scientists in a 2012 issue of the Astronomy Education Review. 'Roughly one in five believes in witches, astrology, clairvoyance, and communication with the dead (PDF). Three quarters hold at least one of these beliefs, and a third has four distinct pseudoscientific beliefs.' Now Steven Ross Pomeroy writes in Forbes Magazine that it's time to bring pseudoscience into public schools and universities. 'By incorporating examples of pseudoscience into lectures, instructors can provide students with the tools needed to understand the difference between scientific and pseudoscientific or paranormal claims,' say Rodney Schmaltz and Scott Lilienfeld." (Read more, below.)
"According to Schmaltz and Lilienfeld, there are 7 clear signs that show something to be pseudoscientific: 1. The use of psychobabble – words that sound scientific and professional but are used incorrectly, or in a misleading manner. 2. A substantial reliance on anecdotal evidence. 3. Extraordinary claims in the absence of extraordinary evidence. 4. Claims which cannot be proven false. 5. Claims that counter established scientific fact. 6. Absence of adequate peer review. 7. Claims that are repeated despite being refuted. Schmaltz and Lilienfeld recommend incorporating examples of pseudoscience into lectures and contrasting them with legitimate, groundbreaking scientific findings. For example, professors can expound upon psychics and the tricks they use to fool people or use resources such as the Penn & Teller program "Bullshit".

But teachers need to be careful or their worthy efforts to instill critical thinking could backfire. Prior research has shown that repeating myths on public fliers, even with the intention of dispelling them, can actually perpetuate misinformation. "The goal of using pseudoscientific examples is to create skeptical, not cynical, thinkers. As skeptical thinkers, students should be urged to remain open-minded," say Schmaltz and Lilienfeld. "By directly addressing and then refuting non-scientific claims, science educators can dispel pseudoscience (PDF) and promote scientific skepticism, while avoiding the unhealthy extremes of either uncritical acceptance or cynicism.""
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It's Time To Bring Pseudoscience Into the Science Classroom

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 05, 2014 @08:29AM (#46668745)

    Even if you show them that what they believe is bullshit, they still choose to believe it.
    Just look at religions all over the world.

  • by EWAdams (953502) on Saturday April 05, 2014 @08:34AM (#46668771) Homepage

    You can't teach critical thinking in schools. The Texas state Republican party platform is explicitly opposed to it.

  • I agree with this (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ChromeAeonium (1026952) on Saturday April 05, 2014 @08:43AM (#46668803)

    A lot of the pseudo-science out there has, in a sense, adapted to having common knowledge applied. Take vaccines for example. A class might teach how they work, discuss the history of how they have stopped many diseases, but what is one to do when presented with the latest anti-vaccine goal-shifted argument, like the 'too many too soon' line? When you have people who will continuously invent new arguments as their basic premise is yet again demonstrated to be false, it is best to teach people the basics of pseudoscience along with science, so that the former can be spotted for what it is. The same applies for a slew of other common nonsenses, which could be used as case studies. I suspect giving clear case studies may be particularly beneficial. My personal anecdote, I was raised to believe in young earth creationism, and it was the realization that I was being expected to commit the same kinds of errors as homeopaths & other woo-woos that helped me to realize that what I had been taught was wrong in a great many ways.

  • by Opportunist (166417) on Saturday April 05, 2014 @09:00AM (#46668871)

    And this isn't even a slight at the push for Creationism or similar bull on our kids. It's that we don't even teach our kids how science works. Maybe because else they could instantly debunk crap like Creationism as the pseudoscience it is.

    Our school system still works along the lines of "it is that way because I say so". Critical thinking, which is the basis of the scientific method (because "doubting" basically IS the scientific method) is not what is asked for. What is wanted is simple acceptance of what you're told, rote learning and parroting. It's a rare class where you actually get to use applied thinking. Most of the times, what's required is simply rote learning, "sponge" learning as I love to call it. Soak up the crap, release again when required, no need to retain anything or do anything else with it.

    As long as we don't teach our kids that science is NOT soaking up and spitting out what you get told, teaching them other pseudosciences on top of Creationism is something I'd consider rather harmful. They might not be able to tell the difference to real science, because from their point of view, there would be none.

  • Re:Yeah, so? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by MightyYar (622222) on Saturday April 05, 2014 @09:28AM (#46668999)

    Big bang isn't certain, but it certainly is falsifiable. Every experiment set up to date has verified it, though.

  • by Brian_Ellenberger (308720) on Saturday April 05, 2014 @09:41AM (#46669065)

    You can't teach critical thinking in schools. The Texas state Republican party platform is explicitly opposed to it.

    --
    I piss off bigots

    Your sig is ironic since your opinion is quite bigoted. There is a great deal of pseudoscience belief on both sides of the isle. The left has irrational beliefs on nuclear power, GMO foods, etc. There was an article in the Washington Post about Democrats believing in horoscope and astrology more than Republicans/Independents: http://www.washingtonpost.com/... [washingtonpost.com]

  • Unfalsifieable (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Immerman (2627577) on Saturday April 05, 2014 @09:48AM (#46669107)

    The core problem with psuedo-science is a lot of it is unfalsifiable. Sure, you can show in a double-blind study that magic magnet bracelets have no significant effect on mood or back pain, but ghosts, ESP, etc? At most you can prove that individual instances are hoaxes, but you can't scientifically disprove their existence as a class. To claim they are bullshit as a class is itself an unscientific claim - at worst they are a hypothesis unsupported by evidence.

    Of course there could still be great value in bringing them into the classroom to compare and contrast with scientific claims and the methods used to verify them - given the number of people willing to dismiss inconvenient science as a "belief" as though it had no more certainty to it than any random religious or pseudo-scientific doctrine our schools are clearly doing a poor job at conveying the qualitative difference in the level of certainty science brings to the table. But debunking should not be part of the science curriculum, it just isn't possible and claiming otherwise harms the very integrity of science we're trying to convey.

  • by holiggan (522846) on Saturday April 05, 2014 @09:51AM (#46669121)

    It's a real religion with real practitioners.

    So as "true" and "trustworthy" as all the other religions then...

  • by Shados (741919) on Saturday April 05, 2014 @10:05AM (#46669205)

    People in general are gullible and believe whatever they hear. Being skeptical, double checking facts, looking at references...those are things people don't even think about anymore (well, they never did, its not new).

    Schools need to push more on THAT. Teaching people to prove what they say, that its not because everyone says something that its true, and to learn how to separate facts from made up stuff. The rest will follow.

  • Re:needs some (Score:5, Insightful)

    by pepty (1976012) on Saturday April 05, 2014 @10:31AM (#46669359)
    Hoyle didn't have doubts about evolution, he had doubts about hypotheses concerning the origin of life (abiogenesis). He thought life came from space via viruses and evolution happened subsequently. The biologists you are talking about for the most part have doubts about aspects of currently accepted theories within evolution, not the fact of evolution itself. Sure there is plenty of stuff to be worked out within evolution: how it has worked under varying circumstances on earth, the increasing variety of hereditary mechanisms and methods of change, how to engineer the evolutionary process in the lab to get the results you want instead of unwanted adaptations, etc. Lots of scientists would love to add their own chapter to evolution; they aren't planning to shitcan it.
  • Consider: (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 05, 2014 @11:29AM (#46669735)

    It is one (unprovable) thing to claim God exists. It is quite another (unprovable) thing to claim that God has a specific list of rules for you to follow, and a specific set of rewards and punishments lined up for them, and specifically wants you to give me a specific amount of money.

    Why draw this distinction? Because it is widely understood that belief in God helps maintain psychological health, especially when under pressure. It is a critical element of the most effective addiction-recovery programs as well as keeping military personnel functional when the crisis hits and sane after it has passed.

    None of this means God exists. But it means that belief in God, even in the most abstract way, is beneficial to humans. It also seems true that some humans can cope just fine while being strictly atheist, or just agnostic. However, this does not change the fact that for most people, belief in God is useful.

    The problem is not belief in God, but belief in all the other baggage that humans bring along with belief in God. And this fact has also been widely recognized. Spiritual-but-not-religious may be hackneyed, but it is still popular, for this very reason. And it is nothing new. For example, the Sadducees (a Jewish sect that were part of Jesus' primary target audience and comprised a lot of the early churches) did not believe in an afterlife at all (no heaven, hell, reward, or punishment, yet still they found reason to believe and benefit from belief).

    The teaching of critical thinking, and methods of recognizing pseudoscience, is important. People need to learn this, not only to protect them from charlatanry of every variety, but also to help them recognize when their own faith might be a bit heavy on the unsubstantiable details. It should not be presented as a definitive disproof of theism, however, since it is not (agnosticism is the only truly logically defensible position), and since the psychological harm this could cause will be socially harmful and will cause tremendous political resistance.

     

  • That's nice but... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Wulfrunner (1213776) on Saturday April 05, 2014 @11:59AM (#46669975)

    While not an advocate for pseudo science, it's illuminating to consider how these seven symptoms can be applied to the practice of regular science:

    1. The use of psychobabble – words that sound scientific and professional but are used incorrectly, or in a misleading manner.
    Most specializations are rife with jargon, often using words that have been incorrectly appropriated from the English language and had their meaning changed. To test this at home, apply a spell check to a scientific paper.

    2. A substantial reliance on anecdotal evidence.
    Anecdotal evidence is there to guide your research (though not to validate it). It doesn't need to appear in your paper, but it is a critical part of the discovery process.

    3. Extraordinary claims in the absence of extraordinary evidence.
    I think this is a prerequisite to getting published in Science or Nature. Your claims have to be sensationalized to sell. Take your convenience sample with ten data points and spin it until it's ground breaking!

    4. Claims which cannot be proven false.
    Anything described as "universal" or "ubiquitous" probably falls into this category.

    5. Claims that counter established scientific fact.
    A dialectic is necessary to advance science. Surely you don't want dogmatic group-think to predominate?

    6. Absence of adequate peer review.
    Have you been through a peer review process? Why aren't you making eye contact with me?

    7. Claims that are repeated despite being refuted.
    You mean the type of stubbornness necessary to overcome the inertia of the currently dominant paradigm? So I should withdraw my research if a single group publishes a study indicating that they "were unable to reproduce" my results?

  • by Grey Geezer (2699315) on Saturday April 05, 2014 @12:17PM (#46670125)

    teaching the scientific method. Those students who can absorb (and not all can) the concept of disciplined critical thinking, do not need to have examples of pseudoscience discussed, as those examples become self evident to the properly educated. Any teacher who says "I believe" in evolution, red shifted star light, plate tectonics, etc., has already lost this battle. Saying instead "We are compelled by evidence, observation, and rigorous testing, to accept this explanation, until such time that further evidence, observation, and rigorous testing compel us to change our opinion." is the only correct way to teach science. That many teachers fall short of this ideal, is painfully obvious. Discussing faux science is a waste of precious time.

  • Re:Unfalsifieable (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Tom (822) on Saturday April 05, 2014 @12:25PM (#46670189) Homepage Journal

    Ah yes. You're right in pointing that out. Yes, we need to allow for the subjective and many areas of human experience are in fields where truth doesn't matter - art, literature, music - who cares if a moving song is true or just a story?

    The pseudo-sciences, however, don't peddle in those areas. Astrology doesn't claim to tell a nice story, it claims to be able to say something about your character and future events.

    So I refine my demand to include only those fields that claim truth values.

    Numerous fully falsifiable studies have shown that almost nothing "objective" will have a sustained impact on our emotional well being

    I read some of them, and beg to differ in details. Continuing your example, yes money does not make us happy. However, lack of money can make us unhappy. There's a fairly low value (I think it was the equivalent of $50k per year) above which additional income doesn't change your happiness value anymore. But below that, and especially when you're struggling and have Existenzangst, then it does.

    Meanwhile "woo woo" stuff like meditation and friendship show very definite improvements in well-being.

    I think meditation is an excellent example, precisely because it has been extensively researched. And we now know that it does, in fact, work. We also know that all the esoteric bullshit in some forms of meditation is entirely unnecessary. That's science at work, right there.

  • Your post is ironic since it's a pure straw-man attack. It's also just stupid. Can you find a school board anywhere that's pushing for astrology,etc. in the classroom?

  • Re:needs some (Score:4, Insightful)

    by hsthompson69 (1674722) on Saturday April 05, 2014 @04:44PM (#46672057)

    Global warming nazis seem to have lots of mod points today :)

      1. The use of psychobabble – words that sound scientific and professional but are used incorrectly, or in a misleading manner.

    "consistent with"

    2. A substantial reliance on anecdotal evidence.

    computer models

    3. Extraordinary claims in the absence of extraordinary evidence.

    poor proxies taken as irrefutable, designed with algorithms that generate hockey sticks out of red noise.

    4. Claims which cannot be proven false.

    the worst part of the AGW trope - no necessary and sufficient falsifiable hypothesis statement. Every observation is considered "consistent with".

    5. Claims that counter established scientific fact.

    AGW doesn't hit this so much, since it's mostly a "heads I win, tails you lose" assertion.

    6. Absence of adequate peer review.

    AGW is notorious for "pal review"

    7. Claims that are repeated despite being refuted.

    Ah, the "97% of scientists" claim :)

  • by MightyYar (622222) on Saturday April 05, 2014 @09:27PM (#46673437)

    When you actually have had experiences that you cannot scientifically explain you tend to realize that there is this huge domain called the Universe At Large and then there is this much smaller domain called What Mankind Currently Accepts And Understands.

    It seems like you are conflating science's inability to explain non-natural phenomena with some kind of arrogance.

    I'd also add: At no point in the history of mankind has a greater understanding of some phenomenon led us closer to a supernatural explanation. I'm not sure why you'd expect your experiences to be special in this regard. Is there stuff we don't know? I sure hope so, or science would become boring very quickly. Are there things that happen that science can never explain? Maybe. But until we are out of stuff that it can explain, it is kind of hard to get very worked up about it.

Nothing is more admirable than the fortitude with which millionaires tolerate the disadvantages of their wealth. -- Nero Wolfe

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