Pseudoscience is a "claim, belief, or practice which is presented as scientific... but lacks supporting evidence or cannot be reliably tested." America is awash in it.
"Roughly one in three American adults believes in telepathy, ghosts, and extrasensory perception," a trio of scientists wrote in a 2012 issue of the Astronomy Education Review. "Roughly one in five believes in witches, astrology, clairvoyance, and communication with the dead. Three quarters hold at least one of these beliefs, and a third has four distinct pseudoscientific beliefs."
Who can we blame for becoming adrift in such hogwash? Thank popular TV hosts like Mehmet Oz, who's touted more than 16 weight-loss miracles on his show, none of which has yet resolved America's obesity epidemic. Thank celebrities like Mayim Bialik and Jenny McCarthy, both anti-vaccine advocates. Thank TLC for giving "Long Island Medium" Theresa Caputo a medium with which to popularize her charlatanism. Thank New Age guru Deepak Chopra, who pushes all sorts of ineffectual alternative medicine through books and media appearances, while collecting a tidy fortune.
By stressing the importance of critical thinking and reasoned skepticism, groups like the New England Skeptical Society, the James Randi Educational Foundation, and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry constantly battle these forces of nonsense, but their labor all too often falls on deaf ears. It's time to take the problem of pseudoscience into the heart of American learning: public schools and universities.
Right now, our education system doesn't appear to be abating pseudoscientific belief. A survey published in 2011 of over 11,000 undergraduates conducted over a 22-year period revealed that nonscientific ways of thinking are surprisingly resistant to formal instruction.
"There was only a modest decline in pseudoscientific beliefs following an undergraduate degree, even for students who had taken two or three science courses," psychologists Rodney Schmaltz and Scott Lilienfeld said of the results.
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.
But teachers need to be careful, the authors warn.
"Research suggests that the use of pseudoscientific examples enhances scientific thinking, but only if framed correctly."
Teachers must stress the refutation of pseudoscientific claims more than the claims, themselves. Otherwise, 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," Schmaltz and Lilienfeld say.
But when claims are revealed to be specious, students should also be prepared to discard them.
Source: Schmaltz RM and Lilienfeld SO (2014). Hauntings, homeopathy, and the Hopkinsville Goblins: Using pseudoscience to teach scientific thinking. Front. Psychol. 5:336. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00336
Correction 4/7: An earlier version of the post mistakenly referred to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry as the Center for Skeptical Inquiry.