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Yes, Let’s Teach About Pseudoscience in Schools

Ross Pomeroy has a great idea. He says we should incorporate discussions about how to spot pseudoscience into public school curricula in order to teach students how to distinguish between reality and nonsense and thus better equip them to understand the world. I could not agree more.

In a new perspective published Monday in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, Schmaltz and Lilienfeld detail a plan to better instruct students on how to differentiate scientific fact from scientific fiction. And somewhat ironically, it involves introducing pseudoscience into the classroom.

The inception is not for the purpose of teaching pseudoscience, of course; it’s for refuting it.

“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,” the authors say.

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.

They recommend incorporating examples of pseudoscience into lectures and contrasting them with legitimate, groundbreaking scientific findings. These examples can be tailored to different classes. For example, in physics classes, instructors can discuss QuantumMAN, a website where people can pay to download digital “medicine” that can supposedly be transferred from a remote quantum computer directly to the buyer’s brain. (Yes, that’s a real website.) Or in psychology classes, professors can expound upon psychics and the tricks they use to fool people.

My friend Greg Forbes does this in his college courses. For example, he has students write to companies that make supplements and claim that there is scientific evidence that shows they do wondrous things for people. They write and ask for copies of the clinical trials or references to the scientific literature to support those claims. Inevitably, those requests are either ignored or answered with a stream of bullshit. Actual studies are never produced.

I see this as part of a larger course of study in critical thinking that needs to be made a very big part of our educational system. That would also include, I think, teaching kids how to decode the messages used in advertising that appeal to our insecurities.

Comments

  1. abb3w says

    I’d be inclined to support this; however, I think the first step might be to have some expert work done on the curriculum. Contrariwise, that might be difficult; the demarcation problem is one of philosophy of science, and getting an honest day’s work out of a philosopher is damn hard.

  2. John Pieret says

    That would also include, I think, teaching kids how to decode the messages used in advertising that appeal to our insecurities.

    You want our free enterprise system to collapse?

  3. Menyambal says

    The counselor at my elementary school teaches the kids about advertising and recognizing claims. Recognizing pseudoscience is a very necessary skill.

  4. eric says

    For example, in physics classes, instructors can discuss QuantumMAN, a website where people can pay to download digital “medicine” that can supposedly be transferred from a remote quantum computer directly to the buyer’s brain.

    Because, y’know, if you invent a working quantum computer, you use it to sell $3 cures via the internet. You would never think to patent the computer itself and sell it for $millions a pop. Makes sense.

  5. Abby Normal says

    This brings to mind something I’ve been wondering about lately. For the past several years there’s been a big push by creationist to “teach the controversy” and instruct students on the “strengths and weaknesses.” Why would any fundamentalist want government educators instructing children about the weaknesses of their beliefs? Even if they have absolute faith that their ideas about creationism are true, how does that translate into faith in the government to handle the topic the way they want? Why invite, or even require, science teachers to directly attack their beliefs?

  6. U Frood says

    Could we then tell the creationists, “See? We’re teaching about creationism in school. We’re teaching how it’s a load of bunk.”

  7. pocketnerd says

    I’ve been saying for years that critical thinking skills should be taught in schools, starting in kindergarten.

  8. peterh says

    To echo others in this thread, those seven points make an excellent gallows from which to hang creationism by its scrawny and oh-so-vulnerable neck.

  9. cottonnero says

    Advertising, politics, pseudoscience, religion, denialism… they’ll never want for case studies.

  10. Artor says

    Hear hear! This should be universal grade school curriculum, but there are college grad students who don’t know the basics of skeptical thinking & critical analysis.

  11. scienceavenger says

    I would alter two slightly:

    2. A substantial reliance on anecdotal or cherry-picked evidence. They’ll have no shortage of material from the global warming denialists

    6. Absence of adequate peer review or support from the relevant scientific community. I’m thinking here of the challenges to evolution that take the form “Findings in Field X make evolution impossible” sans any reference to scientific societies in Field X, ie physicists do NOT generally think that the 2nd Law of Themodynamics poses a problem for evolution, statisticians do NOt think that evolution is too improbable to have occurred, etc.

  12. Synfandel says

    In addition to recognizing false or dubious claims, students should also be taught to recognize the absence of claims. Most advertisements, with the exceptions of a few drug commercials with long lists of caveats, don’t actually make any falsifiable claims about their products at all. The aim of the ad is to make you feel favourably disposed to the product (or anxious about your lack of it) without make the seller in any way liable for the product’s utter inefficacy.

  13. dhall says

    It would be nice if critical thinking was covered the way it ought to be as early as some have suggested. I teach a humanities course in critical thinking on the college level once or twice a year (it rotates among the arts & humanities faculty), and it’s obvious that most students haven’t been exposed to this before. I spend a lot of time discussing fallacies, analysing advertizing for just how commercials are designed to attract consumers, claims of pseudoscience, etc. It is rewarding when the lights go on in their heads, but yeah, it’s too bad it’s not often taught before college. Those who never attend college may never be exposed to it.

  14. Sastra says

    This is a great idea. However, I would expect there to be push-back and complaints from teachers and parents who protest the inclusion of their own pet bit of pseudoscience — which to them of course would be seen as the cutting-edge research which THEY don’t want you to know about. This group won’t necessarily be the same as the usual religious groups who complain about evolution and climate science. Some studies suggest that belief in the paranormal and alternative medicine may actually increase with college education.

  15. Sastra says

    By the way, my favorite class in high school was an elective seniors honor course which taught logic for the first semester — and psychology for the second. That first section involved critical thinking and scouring ads and magazines for examples of common fallacies. At the end of the year the teacher asked for a show of hands on which section was preferred. I was the only one who liked the logic class better. The teacher said she expected that.

  16. zmidponk says

    Abby Normal:

    This brings to mind something I’ve been wondering about lately. For the past several years there’s been a big push by creationist to “teach the controversy” and instruct students on the “strengths and weaknesses.” Why would any fundamentalist want government educators instructing children about the weaknesses of their beliefs? Even if they have absolute faith that their ideas about creationism are true, how does that translate into faith in the government to handle the topic the way they want? Why invite, or even require, science teachers to directly attack their beliefs?

    I suspect they want to have their cake and eat it. They want creationism…oops, I mean Intelligent Design, taught in schools as an alternative scientific theory to evolution, but if you actually teach that it’s a laughably nebulous, pseudoscientific ‘theory’ with zero hard evidence behind it, that’s attacking creationism, which is a religious belief, and therefore a breach of the First Amendment.

  17. says

    I am not sure I agree with:

    5. Claims that counter established scientific fact.

    Pseudo-science does not necessarily make claims that are counter to scientific fact–rather pseudo-science does not explain the facts scientifically.

    Take some of the worst abuses of evo-psych (Perhaps not all evo-psych is pseudo science, but some is). In fact, take one of the most famous–that men prefer blondes because blonde women go gray after menopause, a clear sign to stay away, your DNA is wasted here. If we allow (for the sake of argument) “men prefer blondes” as a general scientific fact, then this just-so story perfectly explains the scientific fact, but it is not science.

    Put differently, I rather suspect that pseudo-science often makes claims that are perfectly aligned with established scientific fact.

    The other indicators, with some good mods suggested by people above, are much stronger, in my opinion.

  18. fmitchell says

    @ U Frood (7)

    At my Catholic prep school in the 1980s our Baptist biology teacher spent a class session on why Creationism was bunk. Would that every public school biology teacher had authority/courage to do the same.

    @ heddle (18)

    Not all the 7 signs have to be present for something to be pseudoscience. But yes, pseudoscience can oppose basic scientific facts, notably homeopathic remedies (it’s just water), other forms of alternative medicine (tried and found wanting), and any claim that starts with “we only use 10% of our brains” (we use 100%, just not all at once, which is called a seizure).

  19. Uncle Ebeneezer says

    I just purchased Language, Truth and Logic, on recommendation by Richard Carrier during his philosophy chat for FTBCon. I’m excited to finally learn how to find fallacies and think logically. This is a skill that I really wish I had been formally taught in high school or college. I think our society would be much better off if everyone got a rudimentary lesson before adulthood.

    I have been saying for years that we should teach religion in schools. Teach what the scared texts say and point out the contradictions, what parts are supported by historical evidence, similarities to pre-existing myths etc. Critical Religion 101. Not holding my breath on ever seeing this in US classrooms.

  20. says

    fmitchell,

    Not all the 7 signs have to be present for something to be pseudoscience. But yes, pseudoscience can oppose basic scientific facts,

    Agreed. I simply think it is a less reliable indicator than the others.

  21. davroslives says

    Lilienfeld is amazing. I’ve read several psych books he’s written or edited, and he’s done fantastic work combatting pseudoscience in the psych profession

  22. acroyear says

    My only problem is my fear it won’t actually work, or work to opposite ends.

    My 6th Grade English class (and many others, I’m sure) had classes on propaganda techniques. While learning to use them was there, so was learning to recognize them.

    Yet as kids grew older, they forgot all that. The few that remembered became marketers, advertisers, politicians, and liars for Jesus. Meanwhile everybody else just falls for these lies over and over. Lies so standardized they can teach them in 6th grade, yet they still fall for them over and over.

    So here, a fear a similar issue. A few might learn something at the time, but it will likely be forgotten like everything else, except for a handful of people who continue to try to expose it, but also a handful of people who learn how it works so well as to invent or develop their own version of the very same scams and con jobs.

    Finally, there’s the religion issue: at what point is a public school allowed to call a faith healer or a false prophet a fraud?

  23. whheydt says

    Ummm…just a niggling little thought…

    The publication the article appears in is the one that turned tail and ran when threatened by a lawsuit from climate change denialists after printing a paper solidly pointing out the tendency of climate change denialists to engage in conspiracy theories.

    Does kind of suggest that the pub in question might not be the most….reliable…source for these ideas.

  24. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    I see this as part of a larger course of study in critical thinking that needs to be made a very big part of our educational system. That would also include, I think, teaching kids how to decode the messages used in advertising that appeal to our insecurities.

    Yes! Seconded by me.

    Teach kids -and early on – how to think and argue well. That’s what education should really be and doing so would benefit everyone in society over time.

  25. lofgren says

    I am a little surprised to see so much support for this here in the comment section. I have previously argued that science classes should teach about creationism in this context and been lambasted for it for wanting the government to support my own atheism. The consensus amongst other commenters at that time was that science classes should take a hands-off approach to creationism, both because it would violate church/state and also because it is a waste of time to teach bad science in classrooms.

    My specific argument was that creationism should be taught in the context of biology, most specifically why creationist theories failed in the 19th century in light of evolution. This was inspired by several exhibits in the Museum of Natural History in NYC that explained the history of some fossils, how they were originally explained in light of creationism, and why they are better explained by modern scientific theories. That seems like an excellent lesson not only in how science progresses by also why it works the way it works today.

    re: Advertising, I have long said that teaching our children to critically evaluate the claims made by advertisers is absolutely the greatest gift that you can give them in our world today. I had some excellent literary criticism teachers in high school, and it was the tools they gave me for exploring stories that ultimately led me towards scientific skepticism and atheism as an adult. There is a shocking inability to tell the difference between reality and fantasy in many adults, and I think it starts with lessons we learn in early childhood.

  26. says

    “democommie’s quick&dirty critical thinking, one and done.*”

    1.) Proceed from the assumption that any claim sans evidence, to be taken on faith, is bullshit.

    2.) Advertising, beyond a brief description of the product and where to buy it is usually a lie.

    * To be taught during 1st period, first day of third grade, immediately BEFORE the Pledge of Subservience.

  27. howardhershey says

    I would suggest that, to test homeopathy claims, growing plants be either given water containing an appropriate amount of fertilizer (preferably composted bull-manure tea) or, alternatively, homeopathically treated bull manure tea (aka, water). This would be a scientific test to see which explanation is full of **it.

  28. peterh says

    “…attacking creationism, which is a religious belief, and therefore a breach of the First Amendment.”

    For the fundies to hide behind this, they would have to admit openly creationism is religion and not science, therefore negating any defense they might then attempt to offer. And demonstrating how a religious belief cannot be shown to be supported by empirical evidence is not an attack but direct application of rational thought.

  29. caseloweraz says

    This is a great idea, but not a new one. It pretty much repeats Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit.

    As others have pointed out, there will be no lack of examples. It would be fun to develop a curriculum around these seven precepts. Especially number 1, which I would lead off with some version of the Turbo-Encabulator spoof. (I never realized it has such a long and glorious history.)

    And there are plenty of references. A few examples from each side:

    Martin Gardener’s Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science

    Philip Klass, UFOs Explained

    James Randi, An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural (St. Martin’s Press, 1995)

    Dan Agin, Junk Science (St. Martin Griffin, 2006)

    Mark Bowen, Censoring Science (Dutton, 2008)

    Kevin R. Grazier (ed.), The Science of Michael Chricton (Benbella Books, 2008)

    Gina Kolata, Ultimate Fitness (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003) [debunks a health scam]

    Sonia Shah, The Fever (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010) [conflicting claims about malaria’s cause]

    Robert Shapiro, Planetary Dreams (John Wiley & Sons, 1999) [a wealthy French woman offers a prize for communicating with aliens on other planets of our solar system — but excludes Mars, which is deemed too easy.]

    Then there are the disinformers. They include:

    Michael Crichton, State of Fear (Avon, 2004)

    Steve Goreham, Climatism! (New Lenox Books, 2010)

    Christopher Horner, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming and Environmentalism (Regnery, 2007)

    Brian Sussman, Climategate (WND Books, 2010)

  30. zmidponk says

    peterh:

    For the fundies to hide behind this, they would have to admit openly creationism is religion and not science, therefore negating any defense they might then attempt to offer. And demonstrating how a religious belief cannot be shown to be supported by empirical evidence is not an attack but direct application of rational thought.

    This is true to logical, rational people.

    We’re talking about fundies here.

  31. Jordan Genso says

    The most memorable day from my high school physics class is when the teacher tried to convince us that light bulbs don’t emit light but are instead “dark suckers”, and we had to debate him to prove him wrong.

  32. oranje says

    @26: I’m not an expert in these areas, but that sounds to me like it’s getting into the realm of where science and social science meet. And that’s a lot of ground, too. I’m not asking this in a snarky way: what would you propose removing to make space for the couple of weeks this would take?

    For my own education, that subject we called social studies seemed to try to dump too much in one place. This would be an ideal true version of social studies by including what you’re describing, rather than filling in worksheets on geography and which places produce textiles.

  33. Nemo says

    This should happen, but without real-life examples, which would lead to endless lawsuits. Or at least, we should try to confine any real-life examples to things that absolutely no one believes in anymore.

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