Sunday, February 18, 2007

Scientific literacy fails to thwart pseudoscience

Increasing scientific literacy is a good and noble cause. I'm all for it, and I do what I can to advance it.

But a rigorous curriculum replete with standards-based content and mandated assessments is no guarantee against the appeal of pseudoscience. Or, as I am wont to say: If your students learn KE=1/2mv^2 then proceed to seek wisdom from their horoscopes, did you really do your job as a science teacher?

This story on a report delivered at the AAAS meeting in San Francisco fleshes out the answer. While scientific literacy is on the rise (for the most part), the popularity of pseudoscience continues to roll merrily along. Larry Summers can take comfort that women are more likely than men to consult horoscopes. Creationists can crow over the confusion they've infused regarding the reality of evolution. Creationists might lose every legal battle and school-board skirmish they face, but they can take comfort in the increase of college students who aren't sure whether evolution or creationism provides the better account of man's origins.

"'More recent generations know more factual material about science,' said Carol Susan Losh, an associate professor at Florida State University. But, she said, when it comes to pseudoscience, 'the news is not good.'"

So I would urge you to include some kind of specific critical thinking/skepticism strands in your already-crowded curriculum. The ones included on this page (Skepticism in the Classroom, also liked to the right) are fairly painless. You can probably do better. If you've got a plan already in place, let me know about it in the comments.

Thanks to Darren at Right on the Left Coast for ruining an otherwise pleasant day with news of this report.


Stevie Ray said...

This is a logical consequence of not showing students how the PROCESS of Science is used to come to data-based conclusions - whether they study the relationship between Position and Clock Time for a moving particle or between Voltage and Current in a simple DC circuit.
When science is taught as if it were a body of seemingly unrelated factoids, students are lead to believe that if they score high on some "Trivial Pursuit" multiple choice instrument, the CST comes strangely to mind, that they actually know something about science. Not so butterfly.

Dean Baird said...

Teaching students the processes of science is all good fun--and important, but I fear it's still too subtle.

No, we need to shine a spotlight on the BS and call it BS.

Not a lot of controversy raging around the nature of x vs. t or V vs. I in the marketplace of ideas. But horoscopes, homeopathy, moon hoaxes, magnet therapy, perpetual motion, etc., are still out there.

We might hope students exposed to the methods of science might apply it to the BS and see it as BS. But being that they're new to science, it might help if we connect some dots for them (or at least show them where the dots are).

Stevie Ray said...


My point is that without exposure to (and repeated applications of) the scientific process, students do not even know what questions to ask when it comes to investigating the claims made by shamsters let alone ways to experimentally answer those questions. I've always felt that Physics is the one discipline which gives us an opportunity to model the processes of science when introducing the topics covered in a first-year course. It’s a shame that this point is lost to so many of our Physics teaching colleagues.

We, as guardians of the discipline (g.o.d.s??), should also never fail to point out the mental laziness rampant both inside and outside our classrooms. My partial list includes the likes of NASA's "Zero-g", allowing students to use terms like faster and slower to compare accelerations, the nonexistent equivalence of the terms THEORY and HYPOTHESIS, accepting answers to questions (What force keeps the Space Station “on orbit”?) with a term (gravity) rather than a concept (mutual attraction between any two masses - earth and space station in this case), invoking "centrifugal force" when describing why people fly off of merry-go-rounds or when water "shoots out" from a rapidly rotating tire, using the term Inertia as if it were an intrinsic property of matter (congratulations - you just resurrected the Impetus argument), telling your students that there are many “forms of energy” rather than the more scientifically powerful idea (2nd Law of Thermodynamics) that Energy is Energy and it can be stored in various scenarios (motion, positions in fields, random motions of atoms) and may be transferred between scenarios by various mechanisms (working, heating, radiating, dissipating).

And to add one final comment to today’s Phyz Rant, have you ever noticed that PHYSICS and PSYCHIC are nearly anagrams? I wonder if anybody has pointed this out to Dan Brown? I’ve even had students write on end-of-the-year course evaluations that, “Your Psychics (sic) class was the best science class I have ever taken.” I suggest we change the name of our beloved discipline to "PHYSICUS - we poo-poo tricks on us"

Anonymous said...

This guy is making millions of dollars pretending to exorcise the devil out of people. People stupid enough to believe this stuff shouldn't be allowed to live