This terrific blog piece on Forbes.com should be of interest to any and all supporters of scientific skepticism and spreading the rationalist worldview. Beginning by pointing out the commonplace belief of Americans in pseudoscientific claims ranging from witches to ghosts to ESP, the writer, Steven Ross Pomeroy, right calls out media figures like Dr. Mehmet Oz, “who’s touted more than 16 weight-loss miracles on his show,” along with anti-science co-conspirators like Deepak Chopra and the TLC network for promoting “Long Island medium” Theresa Caputo.
Shout-outs are given to the New England Skeptical Society, Center For Skeptical Inquiry, and the James Randi Education Foundation, while the focus is brought to bear on the need for changes in the educational system. Interestingly, data is cited about the difficulty of altering pseudoscientific beliefs, with even an undergraduate degree offering little movement in such beliefs.
Offering a list of distinguishing features of pseudoscience vs. science – worthy of a close look by any skeptic! – a cautionary note is also offered concerning the hazards of using pseudoscience to teach about science, and the importance of “stressing the refutation of pseudoscientific claims more than the claims, themselves.”
In my own long-held opinion, the focus of early science education should be on the nature of scientific investigation and its approach to claims and evidence – the nature of the scientific method itself – rather than merely on the technical elements of specific scientific fields and subjects. We should not be teaching students to memorize the periodic table of the elements before we teach how science works.
The inventor, entrepreneur and science and technology supporter, Dean Kamen and I discussed this issue at the 20134 TRANS4M conference (where we shared the stage with I.M.Angel Foundation founder Will.I.Am, along with President Bill Clinton and others), and Dean made an excellent point, suggesting that if we taught kids football the way we teach science, we would spend the first year teaching the rules, the second year the plays and strategies, and in the third year we would let them touch the ball.
But in addition to changing the way we teach science – to teach the methods of science and not merely the mechanics – it is also important to distinguish between science education and teaching critical thinking. As my colleague Steve Novella commented to me over lunch at last weekend’s Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism [www.necss.org] which I hosted in New York City, while there is overlap between science and critical thinking, there are distinct differences, and if you want to help immunize people from the thinking flaws that lead to the embrace of pseudoscientific claims, critical thinking skills are the most important protection.
In short, we are constantly reminded of the need for improved critical thinking skills – and the fundamental raison d’être for the continuing presence of the scientific skepticism movement. More than 350 such supporters joined us last weekend at NECSS, and enjoyed speakers like physicist Lawrence Krauss, astronaut Cady Coleman, developmental psychologist Alyson Gopnik, cognitive neuroscientist Heather Berlin, physician and author Paul Offit, and many more. And we expect more than a thousand similarly-minded enthusiasts will join the cause and the fun at The Amazing Meeting this July in Las Vegas. Hope to see you there!