Teaching the Nature of Science using Pseudoscience

A Semester-long Curriculum to accompany any Introductory Science Course.

Dr. Douglas Duncan, University of Colorado

As discussed in my invited talk at Fermilab, I'm very interested in teaching scientific thinking and the nature of science. What makes science different from other ways of knowing, including philosophy or religion?  How do you distinguish between genuine science and pseudoscience?  Many introductory science courses have a goal to teach these ideas. However, without practice students are unlikely to achieve these important goalsHence, the following curriculum.  It can be taught using perhaps 5-10% of the time available in one semester.

This research paper describes the favorable outcome: Teaching the Nature of Science: Successful Strategies in an Introductory College-Level Astronomy Course.

I start teaching with the Feynman quote, "Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself," because no one likes to be fooled, and this gets the attention of my students.  Below is the series of assignments I give in my introductory astronomy course. I use the contrast between science and pseudoscience as a way of getting students to better understand scientific thinking. I give some assignments (e.g. Repressed memory) that rather strongly challenge student's beliefs. A paper on the apparently successful results of my teaching approach will be published in spring 2009 (Arthurs & Duncan, in preparation).

The astronomy course materials are on CU Learn, which requires a password. Below are the parts relevant to teaching scientific thinking. You are welcome to use all, or part, and I'd appreciate knowing if you do. These materials cover a semester and are meant to be used alongside the "regular subject matter" of an introductory course.  My course is "astronomy for nonscientists" but the curriculum should be useful in any science course for non-majors.

"About this Course," "Course Goals," "Course Syllabus," and "What is Science?"  Note that critical thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving skills are among the top course goals, as is an emphasis on the predicting/testing nature of science. In other words, understanding science and using it in everyday life. 

Week 1.  On the first day I use a PowerPoint suggesting how science effects their lives and how genuine learning requires active minds. (This is part of a more general introduction to the class.) The first Homework Assignment  is simple, and very effective at showing how students think!.

Week 2.  Discuss Bloom's Taxonomy. (going beyond mere recall of facts)  What does it mean to learn? What does it mean to learn science?  This explicit metacognitive discussion is important to get students to think more analytically.  Ask them "Can you know something if you're not able to apply it?"

Students discuss homework #1 and develop their own lists of characteristics of Good Science, and Common Elements of Pseudoscience in discussion sections. Our warning signs of pseudoscience are very similar to these. We have discussion sections led by undergraduates, in a very successful NSF-funded program described at http://stem.colorado.edu.

I use a series of activities that show it's not enough to guess.  You really need data!

  1. Which car is safer?

  2. Stereotypes

I also use this Week 2PowerPoint, which teaches estimation, scaling, and then Science and Pseudoscience.

Week 3.  As a whole class we discuss the elements of good science and pseudoscience developed in Week 2.  I present my version of What is Science and we refer to this throughout the term. I emphasize the predictive nature of science. In everyday life we usually explain things post facto.  But a smart person can often think of multiple post-facto explanations. Not all -- and sometimes none -- are correct. Science is more demanding in calling for predicting and testing.

I use Week3PowerPoint that asks: Which do you believe: what a friend tells you, or scientific data?  Note that all my teaching solicits student input using "clickers" - wireless student response units. See my home page for more about clickers, 17,000 of which are in use at CU.  Clickers get each student to commit to an answer.

Then I challenge students with the famous "basketball" video that dramatically proves what poor observers people are; why we need experiments; why different groups need to repeat the same experiment.  This video is produced by Daniel J. Simmons. (Buy the DVD. It is inexpensive). It must be introduced carefully. You say to students, "There are 6 students in this video and they will be passing 3 basketballs among themselves. 3 students are dressed in black, and 3 in white. Count ONLY the passes from white to white. Do not count black to white, white to black, or black to black.  Count to yourself. DO NOT MAKE ANY NOISE OR COMMENTS ALOUD." Give these instructions, then run the video.  In any large class about half the students will entirely miss an unexpected appearance of a 6 foot gorilla in the middle of the video!  This video, more than any other one item, convinces students that they really can be fooled.  Maybe they DO need science!

I emphasize that science is not the only way of knowing, (religion and philosophy are others) but it is a SPECIFIC way of knowing.  If something does not follow science procedure, it is not science. I point out that science is a uniquely powerful way of trying not to fool yourself (or be fooled by others).

Do religion and science conflict? They need not, but they can.  Galileo quote, "The Bible tells how to go in the world, science tells how the world goes… " Galileo said the earth orbits the sun, was put under house arrest 19 years until he died. I ask students why they think this was.

People like comforting stories – it is HARD to be a scientist, or anyone whose ideas are contradicted by evidence.  Many try to ignore it! (scientists too).  I challenge students to ask for data, and pay attention to it!  I remind them that your expectation even influences what you see. That’s why science demands repeatable experiments.

I assign a homework, "Some people say you can stand eggs on the Equinox."

Week 4.  The Week4PseudosciencePowerPoint emphases application of scientific thinking to medical decisions.  When it comes to medicine, you need to think for yourself.  The PPT asks, "Does the government test it, or are you on your own?" Nearly everyone has to make medical decisions in their life, so this is personal and interesting to students. Most do not know that all the "natural products" (neutraceuticals)  they encounter are NOT tested by the FDA at all.  I use the example of Ephedra, which killed a 23 year old Baltimore Orioles pitcher a few years ago. Ephedra is apparently back on the market. The PPT asks if vaccine deniers are a threat to others. It shows a Polio ward.  Denying science has consequences! Very few of your students have ever seen photos of a polio ward or know what one is. It introduces the important concept of a placebo. It discusses, "What is the ethical way to present scientific controversy if you are a journalist?" 

I then show Eggs on the Equinox 

Week 5 is midterm in my class.  Sometime I assign a reading, "The Apollo Hoax" that says the moon landings were faked. One could also assign this video of Whoopi Goldberg doubting the moon landings.  She mixes up the 1978 movie Capricorn One, about a faked Mars landing, with the Fox TV program about a faked moon landing, but she seems to believe the moon landings were fake.

Week 6  I usually don't do any pseudoscience, unless I assigned "The Apollo Hoax" reading.  Then I present the work of "Hoax buster" Phil Plait.  The famous "mythbusters" on TV have produced 3 cool videos showing that the Apollo Hoax is a Fox TV hoax: Video 1, Video 2, Video 3.

Week 7   The Week7PowerPoint adds some more details to our descriptions of science.  It emphasizes that the words

We identify a class psychic. All students stand. I flip a coin and ask them to guess heads or tails.  Those who are correct remain standing. This is repeated 5-7 times until only one or two students are standing.  I declare them "psychic."  As part of their homework I ask the class to design a good scientific test that would determine if the student(s) is really psychic.  This (and the PPT) introduce the concept that scientific results need to be repeatable.

I ask students to read about AlienAbductions.  This reading is valuable because it includes a variety of lay opinions about whether scientists should challenge unscientific thinking.

Week 8  We modify the class description of Good Science, adding the need for placebos and repeatability. I discuss the article on alien abductions and ask students whether scientists should comment on unscientific thinking among the public. I tell students that there are only 4 known forces in the universe and they know them!  If something new is claimed ("psychic force?") it is quite a claim.  All known forces get weaker with distance.

Homework this week is to read about Repressed Memory Syndrome  (also called recovered memories).

Week 9  The PowerPoint this week asks students to decide if they would put someone in prison based on recovered memories. It asks the same questions asked the previous week about Alien Abductions ("Should scientists point out when people may be wrong?") but applies them to a much more serious situation.

Usually I assign  Week9homework that asks students to design a test of Astrology, or of racial bias in hiring. Both involve human decisions and benefit from using a placebo group in testing.  Good scientific tests of each will be presented later. However, 2012 is shaping up to be another big "End of the World" scare!  (they come about once a decade). So instead I assign the following essay, to be done during the week, and turned in with their second midterm.  The strategy of assigning exam essays a week in advance works very well.

Week 10 is midterm 2 in my class.  Week 11 I use this PowerPoint to ask students about a scientific test of racial bias in hiring. I then present this very nice experiment done by the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business.  I describe other experiments where subconscious memory is wrong. Ask nurses, "Are there more births at time of full moon?" or ask police, "Are there more crimes at certain phases of the moon?" and often you will be told yes.  But records of hospitals and police records do NOT confirm what many people remember.  This week I post “Astronomical Pseudo Science” links on the class www page: https://www1117.verio-web.com/astr88/education/resources/pseudobib.html . I assign a video to watch: Famous Psychic John Edward.

Week 12  This PowerPoint is devoted to psychics and extra sensory perception (ESP). These are topics almost all students have heard of, and which get lots of press because there is a lot of money to be made from this pseudoscience.  The PPT uses Sherlock Holmes to illustrate the difference between deductions and what would be genuine ESP.  (When a boyfriend acts nervous and says he wants to break up with you, and you "sensed something" that is not ESP. Neither is what Sherlock Holmes does.) Stage magicians call what Holmes does "cold reading." So to test ESP or psychics requires careful experiments.  And you should be aware that on this topic some people may want to fool you!  The PowerPoint links to The Amazing Randi. Randi is a famous magician who won a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" prize for exposing fraud. Randi has exposed many fake psychics in the past. He's also a friend; James Randi.  The PPT links to Randi at work Two ex-CU students who write South Park are pretty savvy about science vs. pseudoscience.  Instead of debunking Edwards, like Randi does, they just make fun of him . Here is their video.

I assign reading of Randi's famous expose of a TV preacher.  I don't assign any writing about that article but I say that I will ask some "clicker" questions in class the following week to be sure that students have done the reading.

Week 13  I use a short PowerPoint about Shawn Hornbeck, a boy who disappeared and remarkably was found about 3 years later. His disappearance was all over TV. The most famous psychics said he had died. When he was found no discussion with psychics made it onto TV.  The linked articles are here and here.  (It also has two questions to check if students did the reading about TV Preacher Peter Popoff.  In 2009, despite being exposed years ago, Peter Popoff was back on TV!

As homework students are asked to read three articles critical of psychics, and one praising them:

They then are to write a one page paper about psychics in which they explain what they think is going on.

Week 14  is Thanksgiving.  Week 15  I sometimes use a PowerPoint about the movie "What the Bleep." What a great example of scientific words being used in pseudoscientific ways.  Here's another. Did you know that "What the Bleep" was made by J.Z. Knight who channels (talks to the dead) 35,00 year old "Ramtha?!" (see the PPT). [If I feel like I'm doing too much pseudoscience I skip this; that is what "sometimes" means. This varies with class interest and response.]

Students are asked to choose one of the following to read, about things on the "fringes" of science.

  1. Astrology

  2. Homeopathy. Homeopathy is the most-believed pseudoscience among my students.

  3. A poignant description of pseudoscience and autism, by a doctor with an autistic child.

  4. A computer program that can read your mind, using numerology

  5. Nibiru - what will happen to Earth in 2012?

They then write this one page paper.

Astrology has been tested many times. But the most useful test of astrology, in my opinion, was reported in the Skeptical Enquirer magazine years ago. In a double-blind test clients reported high levels of satisfaction when their horoscopes were done by a professional astrologer  - whether or not the horoscope was correct!  The clever experiment had a control group whose horoscope had been switched without the client or astrologer knowing. This shows that one aspect (no pun intended) of astrology is like the "cold reading" that magicians and psychics do.  It is not correct to say astrology doesn't work.  It is correct to attribute it to psychology, not the planets.  Simply saying that astrology does not work is unbelievable to a person who has (possible paid for and) received advice they think is good.  I have the article, Does Astrology Need to Be True?" by Geoffrey Dean. I don't believe it is on-line anywhere.

Week 16 (final week) I recommend the  book "Predictably Irrational" that shows some fascinating instances of how we fool ourselves (science or not).

My final lecture is on Science and Pseudoscience.  It talks about many popular kinds of pseudoscience including UFOs, crop circles, etc. I use a great PowerPoint co-developed with Dr. Nahum Arav of Virginia Tech.  It includes a test of astrology in class. Each student gets an astrological prediction, folded up with their name on the outside. Having their name on it makes it appear more personal. I tell them that I have access to their birthdates and have selected the prediction for them. Students use their clickers to rate how well the predictions apply to them personally. (A= Excellent advice, B= Very good advice, etc.) They then are asked to trade with the student next to them and discover that everyone in the class has the same prediction, and we vote again how well it applies to them. Maybe even more powerful (and easier to do) is to show this video of mentalist Derren Brown as astrologer. He's good!

I tell them that in all of science we have only found 4 basic forces (gravity, electromagnetism, and two kinds of nuclear forces). That is why any new "force" would be a major claim. And like Carl Sagan says, remarkable claims require remarkable evidence."  (Psychics? No. Dark Energy, maybe!)  To end I recap our lists of properties of Good Science and Pseudoscience, and remind them that they can find good information under the Good Science link, such as the AAAS discussion of Science, Evolution, and Creationism.  I .tell students that I hope this class will helps them "Not fool themselves or be fooled by others" in their lives.

During the final class, I always quote my two favorite statements about the power of science:  I Know a Place Where the Sun Never Sets (I'm searching for the author), and Pale Blue Dot (Carl Sagan). Often I use I Know a Place... at the start of the term instead.

Final Exam

As part of their final exam, students answer one of these Final Essays.  I give them one week to do this. There are many links to supposed psychics and to critiques of them, as well as astronomical pseudoscience such as the "Face On Mars."

Anyone interested in these materials and in teaching students to think more critically and scientifically is welcome to email me. - Doug Duncan, faculty member in Astrophysical & Planetary Science, and Director, The Fiske Planetarium - dduncan(at)colorado.edu


A nice article from a UC Berkeley Dean on Intelligent Design is here.

Somewhere I want to incorporate my experiences with broadcast media.  I did 50 one hour broadcasts on National Public Radio (NPR station WBEZ Chicago) as a science commentator, and I've done around 20 short TV appearances. Only once have I been lied to and had my words distorted: FOX TV News Chicago. FOX is the also station that aired the program suggesting that the Apollo moon landings may have been faked.  Here is a PowerPoint Science in the media.