using pseudoscience to teach science

The following post is an article that I originally wrote for the New Zealand Science Teacher journal (the official journal of the New Zealand Association of Science Educators), and is reproduced here by kind permission of the editor.

We live in a time when science features large in our lives, probably more so than ever before. It is  important that people have at least some understanding of how science works, not least so that they can make informed decisions when aspects of science impinge on them. Yet pseudoscience seems to be on the increase. While some argue that we simply ignore it, I suggest we use pseudoscience to help teach the nature of science (and I recommend Jane Young’s excellent book, The uncertainty of it all: understanding the nature of science,(2010) as a resource).

The New Zealand Curriculum (MoE, 2007) makes it clear that there’s more to studying science than simply accumulating facts: Science is a way of investigating, understanding, and explaining our natural, physical world and the wider Universe. It involves generating and testing ideas, gathering evidence – including by making observations, carrying out investigations and modeling, and communicating and debating with others – in order to develop scientific knowledge, understanding and explanations (p28). In other words, studying science also involves learning about the nature of science: that it is a process as much as, or more than, a set of facts. Pseudoscience offers a lens through which to approach this.

1. Check the information
Students should be encouraged to think about the validity and reliability of particular statements. They should learn about the process of peer review. They should ask: has a particular claim been peer reviewed; who reviewed it; where was it published? There is a big difference between information that’s been tested and reviewed, and information (or misinformation) that simply represents a particular point of view and is promoted via the popular press (and Internet).

‘Cold fusion’ is a good example. Cold fusion was a claim that nuclear fusion could be achieved in the laboratory at room temperatures. The claim was trumpeted to the world via a press release, but was subsequently debunked because other researchers tried, and failed, to duplicate its findings.

Thus checking the source of the information is vital. There is a hierarchy of journals, with publications such as Science considered prestigious, and publications such as Medical Hypotheses considered less so. The key distinction between these journals is the peer review process. For example, papers submitted to Science are subject to stringent peer review processes (and many don’t make the grade), while Medical Hypotheses seems to accept submissions uncritically, with minimal review.

By considering the source of information students can begin to develop the sort of critical thinking skills that they need to make sense of the cornucopia of information on the Internet. When viewing a particular Internet site they should ask (and answer!) questions about the source of the information: has it been subject to peer review (you could argue that the Internet is an excellent ‘venue’ for peer review, but all too often it’s simply self-referential), does it fit into our existing scientific knowledge, and do we need to know anything else about the data or its source?

2. Analyse the information
The following example is excellent for a discussion around both evolution and experimental design, in addition to the nature of science. There is an online article entitled Darwin at the drugstore: testing the biological fitness of antibiotic-resistant bacteria (Gillen & Anderson, 2008) where the researchers tested the concept that a mutation conferring antibiotic resistance rendered the bacteria less ‘fit’. Note: There is an energy cost to bacteria in producing any protein, but whether this renders them less fit – in the Darwinian sense – is entirely dependent on context.

The researchers used two populations of the bacterium Serratia marcescens: an ampicillin-resistant lab-grown strain, which produces white colonies, and a pink, non-resistant (‘wild-type’) population obtained from pond water. ‘Fitness’ was defined as ‘growth rate and colony "robustness" in minimal media.’ After 12 hours’ incubation the two populations showed no difference in growth on normal lab media (though there were differences between 4 and 6 hours) but the wild-type strain did better on minimal media. It is difficult to know whether the difference was of any statistical significance as the paper’s graphs lack error bars and there are no tables showing the results of statistical comparisons. Nonetheless, the authors describe the differences in growth as ‘significant’.

The authors concluded that antibiotic resistance did not enhance the fitness of Serratia marcescens: wild-type [S.marcescens] has a significant fitness advantage over the mutant strains due to its growth rate and colony size. Therefore, it can be argued that ampicillin resistance mutations reduce the growth rate and therefore the general biological fitness of S.marcescens. This study concurs with Anderson (2005) that while mutations providing antibiotic resistance may be beneficial in certain, specific, environments, they often come at the expense of pre-existing function, and thus do not provide a mechanism for macroevolution (Gillen & Anderson, 2008).

Let us now apply some critical thinking to this paper. Your students will be familiar with the concept of a fair test, so they will probably recognise fairly quickly that such a test was not performed in this case because the researchers were not comparing ‘apples with apples’. When one strain of the test organism is lab-bred and not only antibiotic-resistant but forms different coloured colonies from the pond-dwelling wild-type, there are a lot of different variables involved, not just the one whose effects are supposedly being examined.

In addition, and perhaps more tellingly, the experiment did not test the fi tness of the antibiotic-resistance gene in the environment where it might convey an advantage. The two Serratia marcescens strains were not grown in media containing ampicillin! Evolutionary biology predicts that the resistant strain would be at a disadvantage in minimal media. This is due to it using energy to express a gene that provides no benefit in that environment, making it short of energy for other cellular processes. And, as I commented earlier, the data do not show any significant differences between the two bacterial strains.

Also, the authors work at Liberty University, a private faith-based institution with strong creationist leanings, and the article is an online publication in the ‘Answers in Depth’ section of the website of Answers in Genesis (a young-Earth creationist organisation). This is not a mainstream peer-reviewed science journal. This does suggest that a priori assumptions may have coloured the experimental design.

3. Verify the information
Your students should learn how to recognise ‘bogus’ science. To begin with, students should scrutinise information presented via the popular media (including websites) and ask: why is this happening? Another warning sign is the presence of conspiracy theories.

One conspiracy theory worth discussing relates to the validity of vaccination programmes: “Is vaccination really for the good of our health, or the result of a conspiracy between government and ‘big pharma’ to make us all sick so that pharmaceutical companies can make more money selling products to help us get better?”

Dr A. Kalokerinos is often quoted on anti-vaccination websites as saying: My final conclusion after forty years or more in this business is that the unofficial policy of the World Health Organisation and the unofficial policy of ‘Save the Children’s Fund and almost all those organisations is one of murder and genocide. They want to make it appear as if they are saving these kids, but in actual fact they don’t.

This quote is a good example of how conspiracy theorists often use an argument from an ‘authority’. Yet it is easy to pull together a list of names with PhD or MD after them to support an argument. Try giving your students a list of names of ‘experts’ and see if they can work out their field of expertise.

Recently, New Zealand schools received a mailout from a group called ‘Scientists Anonymous’ offering an article purporting to support ‘intelligent design’ rather than an evolutionary explanation for a feature of neuroanatomy. The article was authored by Dr Jerry Bergman.

A literature search indicates that Dr Bergman has made no recent contributions to the scientific literature in this field, but he has published a number of articles with a creationist slant. So Dr Bergman cannot really be regarded as an expert authority in this particular area. Similarly, it is well worth reviewing the credentials of many anti-vaccination ‘exp erts’ – the fact that someone has a PhD by itself is irrelevant; the discipline in which that degree was gained, is important. Observant students may also wonder why the originators of the mail out feel it necessary to remain anonymous.

Students need to know the difference between anecdote and data. Humans are pattern-seeking animals and we dohave a tendency to see non-existent correlations where in fact we are looking at coincidences. For example, a child may develop a fever a day after receiving a vaccination. But without knowing how many non-vaccinated children also developed a fever on that particular day, it’s not actually possible to say that there’s a causal link between the two.

Another important message to get across to students is that there are not always two equal sides to every argument, not withstanding the catchcry of "teach the controversy!" This is an area where the media, with their tendency to allot equal time to each side for the sake of ‘fairness’, are not helping. Balance is all very well, but not without due cause.

For example, apply scientific thinking to claims such as the health benefi ts of homeopathy. Homeopathy makes quite specific claims concerning health and well-being. How would you test those claims of efficacy? What are the mechanisms by which homeopathy – or indeed any other alternative health product – is supposed to have its effects? Claims that homeopathy works through mechanisms as yet unknown to science don’t address this question, but in addition, they presuppose that it does actually work.

Students will have some knowledge of the properties of matter and the effects of dilution, and senior classes may be aware of Avogadro’s number. They could apply this to the claim that homeopathic remedies become more effective at higher and higher dilutions, something that, if correct, would overturn our understanding of basic chemistry and physics. The 10:23 Campaign – in which people take ‘overdoses’ of homeopathic remedies – is a humorous way of highlighting the improbability of such claims.

If students can learn to apply these tools to questions of science and pseudoscience, they will become better equipped to find their way through the maze of conflicting information that the modern world presents, regardless of whether they go on to further study in the sciences.

A.Campbell (2011) Using pseudoscience to teach science. New Zealand Science Teacher 128: 38-39

One thought on “using pseudoscience to teach science”

  • There does seem to be an enoguracing trend in at least a few major news sources of good skeptical articles critical of CAM. My local paper has even run the AP stories, despite a lot of advertising by CAM practitioners. (We are only about 25 miles north of Sedona). I think some of the local weeklies and monthlies would probably go out of business without the advertising money from naturopaths, chiropractors, intuitive healers etc.Hopefully it is the start of something, not just a brief blip on the radar.

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